History means ignoring the news … until it doesn’t

News broadcasts should be ignored by historians, at least when they think of themselves as historians, because the news froths with such exuberance that it’s mostly wrong. So when I read a few days ago about a forest fire near the Chernobyl sarcophagus, I glanced at the report (it was mostly benign, yes a fire had started but it was out or nearly out, and no, there was no cause for concern) and kept writing about 1955.

But today The Guardian reports that “Ukraine: wildfires draw dangerously close to Chernobyl site: Witnesses accuse government of covering up severity of blaze near site of nuclear disaster.” If there’s one thing a heap of research on the Chernobyl catastrophe, including a field trip, has alerted me to is this: if a big fire were to occur over a swathe of the exclusion zone, it would release a calamitous amount of leftover highly radioactive dust. Now, the Ukrainian authorities are well aware of this and are comprehensively prepared, but nonetheless…

So I’ve taken a second look. The Guardian article relies on Facebook posts (I’ve clipped one here, you get the style and drift) from Yaroslav Yemelianenko, a tour operator. His posts and video and photos don’t inspire confidence at first glance, but if he is exaggerating, what would be the point? The Guardian article cites claims that over 300 firefighters are battling blazes. Three days ago, the authorities said the fires weren’t contained, but they’re saying (and of course they would) that all is under control.

The point of this post isn’t to offer my commentary on the specific fire or fires occurring or occurring not right now near the mausoleum plant. What do I know? My point is that yesterday, the historian in me had no interest in this fleeting news story. Today, the historian in me is alert: is there any chance at all that I’m witnessing history in action? I should know soon.

Oh, and if you know anything more current or accurate. please let me know.