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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fires Near Chernobyl Raise Radiation Fears

KIEV -- A major fire raced through five villages near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Tuesday, burning for more than seven hours and sending an unknown amount of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, officials said.

The extent of radioactivity from the blaze, about 18 kilometers southwest of the power plant, was not immediately clear and reports were conflicting.

It had threatened to spread beyond the 30-kilometer exclusionary zone surrounding the plant, site of the world's worst nuclear accident 10 years ago this Friday.

Firefighters from the Chernobyl station rushed to the scene immediately after the fast-moving fire broke out at around noon, authorities said. Helicopters flew in more firefighters and equipment.

The fire started among dried pines and abandoned homes in the village of Tovsty Lis and quickly spread to the other four with strong winds blowing to the southeast toward Kiev, the station officials said. The fire was out by 7:30 p.m., siad Vasily Melnik, head of the Kiev region fire department. It had threatened to spread radioactive dust left over from the 1986 explosion and fire.

"If the fire is allowed to burn much longer it will certainly carry some radionuclides beyond the 30-kilometer exclusion zone ... and threaten the outside population," Vadim Grishenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian Environment Ministry's nuclear safety department, said as the fire raged.

Melnik, however, said the radioactivity at the fire site was not increasing.

A separate fire that broke out in the village of Novoshepelichi, about 10 kilometers south of the power plant, was put out after two hours.

No casualties were immediately reported. The cause of the fire appeared to have been a burning cigarette, started by picnicking families who had returned Tuesday to visit grave sites around their former homes, emergency officials said.

Some of the 300 villagers who had come to see their deserted wooden houses and tend gravesites in Tovsty Lis broke down hysterically as flames raced through the settlement.

People were led away into the buses that had brought them specially to the village, 18 kilometers away from the plant, as part of their annually permitted visit to the region. Firefighters poured water over the buses as they left.

The duty officer at Chernobyl, Oleksandr Belik, said there was no fire threat to the station or the workers and that they had not changed their work routine. He said he was not concerned about the radiation risk. "We have forest fires here every year," Belik said.

A Kiev-based spokesman for the environmental group Greenpeace, Antony Frogatt, said: "This is clearly a danger to the health of people, and not only in Ukraine. This is one of the major ways that radionuclides travel to uncontaminated regions."