KIEV, Ukraine -- President Viktor Yanukovych ordered troops deployed to block entry to forests across Ukraine in an effort to prevent wildfires.
Addressing the National Security and Defense Council, the top security body, he said he will cut short his vacation and relocate to Kiev immediately to monitor the firefighting effort.
“Put all army units, national guard units on alert, and shut down all entries to forests,” Yanukovych said at the council meeting. “The people should be prohibited from visiting the forests. Nor [should there be] any military exercises.”
The response comes as Ukraine prepares to fend off a wave of wildfires that have been wrecking havoc on Russia during the past week.
Yanukovych was earlier criticized by opposition groups for taking a 46-day vacation starting July 9, but his urgent return to Kiev suggests he has been really concerned about the spread of wildfires.
Russia and Ukraine are suffering through their worst heat waves on record, a condition that has sparked forest and peat fires across regions.
The wildfires destroyed a total of 1,240 hectares of forests in Ukraine as of Thursday, according to the State Committee on Forestry.
In Russia, the wildfires killed 50 people and destroyed 196,000 hectares of forests as of Thursday, according to Russia’s emergency situations ministry.
Yanukovych, who put First Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Kliuyev in charge of the firefighting effort, said a particular attention must be paid to preventing spread of fire to military bases that are holding strategic reserves of fuel.
He did not elaborate, but Interfax-Ukraine, citing a source, reported that a fire has been approaching the 3-kilometer radius around an army base in Hvardiyske village in the Dnipropetrovsk region that has been holding army fuel reserves.
Another risk of radioactive contamination stems from the forest fires sweeping through areas polluted by the 1986 explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear plant.
“I had an information that wildfires were spotted in the 30-km exclusion zone around the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which triggered concerns about the radiation in Kiev,” Yuriy Hrymchak, a lawmaker from Out Ukraine People’s Self-defense group, said.
The Emergency Situations Ministry denied the reports of wildfires in the exclusion zone.
Hrymchak also criticized Yanukovych for late reaction to the wildfires and for holding the meeting of the National Security and Defense Council at his Black Sea residence in Crimea.
“This is populism and self-PR holding the emergency meeting of the NSDC in Crimea, right on the beach, when Kiev has been already full of smoke,” Hrymchak said.
“What’s interesting that when Kiev was in smoke, everybody was on vacation: the president, the prime minister, the mayor,” Hrymchak said. “All other official were in Crimea, sort of working.”