ESA satellite images show scale of devestating Chernobyl wildfires

17 Apr 2020

Smoke from a wildfire in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Image: © Fotokon/

Wildfires near the site of the closed Chernobyl nuclear power plant have been snapped by an ESA satellite.

The scale of the wildfires that came dangerously close to the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine has been revealed by the European Space Agency (ESA). A series of satellite images taken by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite show fire, smoke and the resulting destruction, highlighting how close the fires got to the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster.

A GIF provided by ESA compares the situation on 7 April to what it looked like on 12 April. The image from 12 April is from one acquisition, but has been processed to show the smoke from the fires and then the burned area through the smoke.

GIF showing the progress of the Chernobyl wildfires from space.

GIF showing the progress of the Chernobyl wildfire. Image: Copernicus Sentinel data, processed by ESA (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Wildfires around Chernobyl – within an exclusion zone where human activity is heavily restricted – are a seasonal phenomenon. However, the fires have been stronger than usual this year due to a mild winter and spring that left the forest floor dry.

It was feared that the wildfires could reach the defunct nuclear reactor and a storage site for radioactive waste. If this had happened, there could have been a spike in radiation in the area and beyond.

However, heavy rain has resulted in most of the flames being extinguished. Ukrainian authorities said earlier this week that there were still more than 500 firefighters working in the region to contain the smouldering embers.

Satellite image showing extent of the wildfires around the Chernobyl site, coloured yellow.

The map shows the burned area (coloured yellow) around the Chernobyl site. Click on the image for a larger version. Image: Copernicus Emergency Management Service/ESA

Seeing wildfires across Europe

Monitoring the wildfires was part of the activation of ESA’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service. Using satellite data, the service provides information for emergency response for different types of disasters.

This includes meteorological and geophysical hazards, deliberate and accidental disasters, humanitarian disasters, as well as response and recovery activities.

ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-3 satellite also recorded the fires, with data now shown in the World Fires Atlas Prototype interactive map, documenting recent and current wildfires across Europe.

Images from ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite were recently released by the Irish Centre for High-End Computing to show an overall reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels across the country between February and March this year. However, the data also shows a number of spikes, most likely associated with fires in rural areas.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic