April 14 (UPI) -- The Ukrainian government said Tuesday a large fire burning in the "exclusion zone" near the Chernobyl nuclear power station is under control, but some witnesses say that doesn't appear to be true.
The Ukrainian interior ministry said there "were no open fires" remaining within the 18-mile zone that surrounds the plant, which was the site of one of the world's worst nuclear accidents in 1986.
Interior ministry officials said crews had dumped 500 tons of water onto the fire and there's only "a slight smoldering of the forest floor with separate cells" remaining. They said 500 people and 110 vehicles were sent into the exclusion zone to fight the blaze.
Background radiation in Kiev and the surrounding region is within normal limits, the ministry added.
Ukraine's State Agency on Exclusion Zone Management said in a Facebook post that fires were still burning in the Rossokha village, a scrapyard containing the irradiated emergency vehicles that responded to the accident.
A Chernobyl tour operator, however, said the fire is still out of control and has reached the abandoned city of Pripyat, less than two miles from a site where contaminated debris from the accident is stored.
The situation has raised some concern that radiation still contained the exclusion zone could be spread by the fire, which started on April 4.
The No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl exploded and experienced a core meltdown following a safety test at the plant on April 26, 1986. It's one of only two nuclear disasters rated at seven, the maximum level, on the International Nuclear Event Scale. More than 77,000 square miles in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, which in 1986 were all part of the Soviet Union, were seriously contaminated by radiation.
The disaster directly killed less than 50 people, mainly emergency first responders known as the Chernobyl "liquidators," but it's estimated that as many as 60,000 have died over the last three decades due to ailments related to the radiation fallout. Officials concluded design flaws at the plant contributed to the accident.
Scientists have said the area around the Chernobyl plant won't be habitable for 20,000 years.