Wildfires in the Atomic Age: Mitigating the Risk of Radioactive Smoke
1. The Nuclear Wildfire Problem
“I know when I am fighting a fire on radioactively contaminated ground—you get the heat just like an ordinary fire, but you get a tingling sensation too, like pins jumping all over your body. I don’t know how bad it is for me, there’s no medical testing afterwards, we just go and wash”quoted in  (n.p.).
“When you go there, the forest, the trees, and the air are the same. Nothing tells you that the place is dangerous, only the device [Geiger counter] beeping”quoted in  (n.p.).
2. Potential Solutions and Future Research Directions
- Establish the geology, soil compositions, vegetation types, wildfire history, and associated land management issues at contaminated sites, and examine how these may be changing due to climate change and broader land use changes. These factors influence important dynamics, such as fuel load and flammability, the soil-to-plant radionuclide transfer factor, the potential of soil for rereleasing smoke and hot particles into the air, and particle leaching into the groundwater .
- Develop an in-depth understanding of: (a) the movement and measurement of hot particles, (b) how likely people are to ingest them via airways, the skin, food, and drink when exposed to contaminated smoke, and (c) the potential short- and long-term health impacts. Such epidemiological research may be usefully connected to recent developments in aerobiology, which show wildfire smoke as a potential infectious agent that can carry viable microbes for long distances with other potential health repercussions, particularly for wildland firefighters [27,28,29].
- Model where future smoke from contaminated areas is likely to travel, and prepare for the potential risks to downwind communities. The direction of dominant winds at certain times of the year, particularly during the fire season, is already a core part of wildfire management [30,31], and recent fire seasons have demonstrated the unequal consequences of drifting smoke on society more broadly . Appropriate knowledge of soil properties (particularly soil organic carbon content and moisture), and hence soil type, also plays an important role in developing such predictive hazard models . Soils with organic carbon-rich surface horizons are more likely to undergo intense burning than the desert areas of many nuclear weapons testing sites where soils usually lack organic matter, meaning smoke generation mainly comes from plant fuels in deserts.
- To avoid a buildup of hazardous fuel levels in contaminated areas, prioritize forestry, scrubland, or grassland management via targeted land stewardship programs that value collaboration and knowledge sharing between diverse stakeholders, while ensuring the people performing the maintenance work have the personal protective equipment (PPE) suitable for the task.
- Establish and share best practice protocols for firefighting in contaminated areas, and ensure wildland firefighters have the right PPE to avoid risky exposure such as that experienced by firefighters in the CEZ.
- Equipment and fuel management come at a cost. Some agencies and regions have inadequate funding or political will to address the problem at hand. The pooling of expertise, collaborative efforts, and funding internationally is therefore important. Ensuring that wildland firefighting and land management agencies receive adequate funding to deal with nuclear wildfires should therefore be within the remit of international regulatory bodies and radiation protection organizations . This will protect wildland firefighters, land stewards, and smoke-impacted communities alike from the lingering consequences of nuclear disasters.
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Conflicts of Interest
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Eriksen, C. Wildfires in the Atomic Age: Mitigating the Risk of Radioactive Smoke. Fire 2022, 5, 2. https://doi.org/10.3390/fire5010002
Eriksen C. Wildfires in the Atomic Age: Mitigating the Risk of Radioactive Smoke. Fire. 2022; 5(1):2. https://doi.org/10.3390/fire5010002Chicago/Turabian Style
Eriksen, Christine. 2022. "Wildfires in the Atomic Age: Mitigating the Risk of Radioactive Smoke" Fire 5, no. 1: 2. https://doi.org/10.3390/fire5010002