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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Hope for Fukushima Residents

Nov. 28, 2016

A group of firefighters has been looking after the evacuation zones in Fukushima Prefecture, hoping for the residents' return.

Many people were forced to evacuate after the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and entry to some areas remains strictly limited.

The Futaba fire defense headquarters is situated in the town of Naraha, 20 kilometers from the nuclear power plant. Its 126 firefighters are mobilized to deal with incidents at the crippled plant more than 40 times a year. They respond to injuries suffered by workers, sometimes putting on protective gear.

Their work is quite different from that of ordinary firefighters. One of their main duties is to patrol the 8 towns and villages under their jurisdiction. More than half the area has been off limits since the nuclear disaster, and people aren't allowed to live there.

Hiroki Kanai, 25, joined the department a month after the March 2011 disaster. He's particularly cautious about fires breaking out.

"When a large volume of contaminated wood and grass is piled up, it can ferment, generate heat and catch fire," he says.

He conducts more than 3,000 patrols a year, sometimes entering evacuation zones.

"Even if evacuation orders are lifted, people will be afraid to return home unless we take proper measures to prevent disasters," he says.

Kanai was also forced to evacuate, and hasn't returned. He grew in Naraha, and still lives in temporary housing in a nearby city along with his parents.

"I used to ride a bicycle with classmates to the river, with a fishing rod. I have so many good memories that keep coming back," he says.

An emergency call comes in from an area that remains off limits, but there's no additional information. When they arrive at the home, they find it empty. Firefighters check the area, and find an old phone line exposed to the elements.

"We can't tell if it's just a glitch until we get there. It's possible someone called for help but was unable to speak, Kanai says."

The false alarms and patrols continue.

"Our work involves many operations that are unusual and don't quite fit the image of a firefighter's duties," Kanai says.

Workers from the Futaba fire defense headquarters regularly visit evacuees, including those at a temporary housing complex an hour's ride from Naraha. Kanai says he's noticed something while listening to their stories.

"Talking to people is not part of our usual duties, but I've noticed that is brings smiles back to their faces," he says.

While patrolling one day, Kanai heads to an area where an evacuation order was lifted a year ago, and finds that people are gradually returning.

"It used to be dark here, but the lights are coming back. That makes me so happy. We want to help encourage people to return home. We'd like to make the area more accommodating so that when people do return, they can feel safe," Kanai says.

The nuclear accident dramatically changed people's hometowns. But the firefighters are doing their best to protect them so that former residents can return home someday.