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It’s better to be prepared

Apr 09,2019
The mountainous Gangwon Province is prone to wildfires during the dry and windy spring. Wind gusts form around the cities of Yangyang and Ganseong, and can cause fire to spread quickly. A 2005 wildfire in Yangyang burned down an ancient temple, and another one in 2000 wiped out a forest along the east coast 10 times the size of Yeouido, western Seoul. Last week’s fire, which devastated the cities of Goseong, Gangneung and Sokcho, also took place in early April. Given history, the natural disaster should have been foreseen and therefore prevented.

The wildfires of 2000, 2005 and last week have many similarities: firefighting was nearly impossible at night. The army of firefighters could not prevent fires from spreading to roads and residential areas. The fire trucks alone were unable to deal with fires spread by winds. Helicopters can only be mobilized in the daylight.

Even after nearly two decades, firefighting strategy has remained the same. President Moon Jae-in ordered the “mobilization of all possible resources,” but there are evident limitations to what can be done against wildfires.

There are no firefighting choppers that can be deployed after dark, nor are there fire trucks that can climb mountains. The local firefighting agency purchased a single helicopter that can fly after dark last year, but it is too small to fly against strong winds. Last year, the Gangwon fire authority pleaded for a larger helicopter, but was unable to secure the 25 billion won ($22 million) needed for the chopper.

There is also no ground fire apparatus and equipment customized for mountains. A German brush truck carrying a 3,000-liter water tank costs 1 billion won. Korea is covered with mountains, and yet there is no such a truck in the country. The Gangwon fire authority had also asked for two trucks, but was rejected by the legislature.

Choi Moon-soon, governor of Gangwon Province, said his administration has long been asking for fire apparatuses to fight against wildfires. Instead of idly waiting for help from the central government and legislature, the local government must first use its own budget to bolster its firefighting capacity. The government must also update the country’s firefighting equipment to strengthen readiness instead of scrambling to provide extra budgeting for restoration after the damage has already been done.

The ruling party congratulated the firefighters for getting the fire under control in less than two days. But without real action to enhance firefighting capabilities, wildfires will continue to threaten the lives of the people.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 8, Page 30