Forests of Chornobyl: Stopping Future Fallout

Shelia Slemp, U.S. Forest Service International Programs

Читати українською

Red Forest Hill in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone  Photo credit: Timm Suess
Red Forest Hill in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone
Photo credit: Timm Suess

The forests of Chornobyl present a unique problem.  For more than 25 years, forestry management activities, such as thinning and clearing brush, which reduce wildfire severity and maintain forest productivity, have been curtailed by the hazards of radioactivity. As a result, the build-up of dead trees and dense undergrowth in the forest increases the likelihood of a catastrophic wildfire, smoke from which could transport radionuclides to populated areas in Ukraine and neighboring countries.

Since 2006, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has been working with the government of Ukraine to look at innovative ways to not only effectively manage the forests, but increase the capability of on-the-ground emergency staff to respond to fire and other emergencies that occur in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.  Fire and forestry specialists from the U.S. and Ukraine are working together to determine ways to restore forests to safer conditions; identify the potential risks of inaction; and prepare for the increasing probability of fires in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.

Scientists can now predict the amounts of smoke and possible radioactive contaminants emitted from potential forest fires.  The next step is for Ukrainian and U.S. Forest Service specialists to determine weather patterns, the amount of fuel and its location, and other factors, in order to identify and model wildfire intensity and the potential for the spread of radioactive contaminants to populations in Ukraine and Europe.  This, in turn, will allow forest managers to target thinning and brush cleanup to strategic locations, maximizing effects of fire mitigation activities and minimizing the high costs associated with such work in contaminated areas.

With this information, fire fighters will be equipped to better understand fire behavior and undertake forest management measures and fire suppression actions and reduce the size, intensity, and duration of fires and minimize the potential for the spread of radioactive contamination.  Such research and management actions have been at the forefront of the USFS’s strategy to mitigate the effects of wildfire in the United States.  Effectively applying this information, however, requires a standardized system capable of integrating actions and information.  One such system is the U.S. Forest Service Incident Command System.

Ukrainian delegation meets with Deputy  director of the Federal Forest Resources
Ukrainian delegation meets with Deputy director of the Federal Forest Resources

Working with other partners, the USFS uses the Incident Command System (ICS)—an emergency/disaster response system that evolved from a wildfire response system developed by the USFS and state and local partners in California in the 1970s.  Over the past 30 years, ICS expanded and was adopted nationally to manage the federal response for many types of emergencies including earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and human-caused incidents.  The ICS is even used to organizing large scale events, like the Olympics.

The USFS is well equipped to provide support for such all-hazard response and is frequently tapped to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).  With thousands of fires each year, the agency gets much of its ICS training and experience during actual emergency situations.  As a result, the USFS has a long history of working with state, county, and local governments, as well as U.S. embassies around the world to build disaster management capacity to prepare for future disasters.

In July 2012, with support from USAID, two USFS experts provided a 3-day overview of the Incident Command System to more than 40 emergency response personnel in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.  The trainers and Chornobyl emergency response staff discussed some of the challenges of utilizing a locally-based response system in Ukraine.  With a centralized, top-down approach to emergency response, integrating new methods like those of the ICS system would prove challenging in Ukraine.  Based on these conversations, the U.S. Forest Service International Programs office invited a delegation of high level officials from the Ukrainian government to the United States to learn more about the ICS, the evolution of policy to support it, and how it was altered following lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.

Ukrainian delegation at the U.S. command center at the centers for disease control
Ukrainian delegation at the U.S. command center at the centers for disease control

In November 2012, with the support of USAID and technical assistance from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, the U.S. Forest Service hosted a team of six high level officials from the Ministry of Emergencies and the State Agency for Forest Resources of Ukraine to the United States to learn more about the U.S. model of coordinated emergency response. USFS personnel provided background information about the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the ICS, ICS programs abroad, and the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Presenters also demonstrated the framework in which federal, state, and local agencies work together in emergency response situations.

The idea that control always remains with the local community was quite a radical concept to the delegation.  Federal agencies provide support only when invited, and even then in a subordinate role.  One reason for this is that local residents are better connected to local resources and have existing relationships that may not be available at the federal level.  Such a system relies on local ability and coordinating policies at all levels of government.  It also requires stakeholder participation and development of community relationships in order to provide a stronger, quicker and organized response.

The delegates were able to piece all of these elements together from visits to emergency response entities in Washington, DC, and Atlanta, Georgia, giving them a better understanding of the value of the local locus of control and a locally coordinated ICS approach.  The group visited New Jersey and New York, where they met with representatives from FEMA, the U.S. Forest Service, Incident Support Teams, and others from around the country who had come together to support the local response to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated much of the Eastern seaboard in these two states.

It has taken many years for the NIMS/ICS to evolve within the United States.  Much of what U.S. officials and responders learned from past mistakes have become integral to the success of NIMS/ICS today.  The ICS has been adopted by a number of countries outside the United States and these countries have been able to adapt their local realities to the system.  Having a shared emergency response framework provides a unique opportunity for multinational collaboration, which can be particularly useful during emergency situations with global implications like that of Chornobyl.  By using a coordinated system, responders are better equipped to reduce loss of life, decrease economic impact, and diminish the effect of compounded, prolonged impact of disasters.

Building on past collaboration, the USFS plans to continue working with USAID, other offices of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government, and the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences (NULES) in Kyiv to find solutions and alternatives to emergency response and risk mitigation.  However, new partners are welcome, and necessary.  As in the United States, such emergency response will require the support of national institutions and local communities alike.  The U.S. Forest Service looks forward to continued collaboration to find ways to reduce the threat of fires in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone and work together for multinational collaboration on all-hazards emergency response.


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