Located about 11 miles southeast of the now-abandoned Ukranian city of Chernobyl, Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power complex began to melt down and caught fire on April 26, 1986, the start of a prolonged crisis that included radiation plumes that soon drifted over Northern Europe.

The radiation blanketed the plant’s immediate vicinity at lethal levels, and was later blamed for a spike in cancer cases and other health problems in human populations downwind.

Some 400 hectares (nearly 1,000 acres) of trees nearest the crippled reactor, mostly conifers that were part of the Worm Wood Forest, died straight away, the cinnamon color of their bare standing skeletons influencing the watching world to start referring to the forest by a new name, the Red Forest.

The deadened swath represented only a small portion of the forest, however, and today one of the area’s more pressing concerns is the growing risk of a massive wildfire erupting there – a result of inadequate forest-thinning activity to reduce fuel loads since the area became a kind of no-man’s land after the ‘86 accident.

One section that did receive attention: those 400 hectares of trees that immediately died nearest the plant. Because they were so highly irradiated and presented an extreme fire hazard, authorities pushed through an emergency cleanup project during the year immediately following the accident. It bulldozed the trees and buried them in huge trenches.

With the threat of airborne radiation from those trees thus removed, a fresh worry about them began: that they would inevitably contaminate the groundwater.

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