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Over 500 people evacuated due to wildfires, one killed

May 08,2017
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Firefighters strive to extinguish wild fire in Samcheok, Gangwon, on Sunday. [YONHAP]
The wildfires that swept through roughly 130 hectares of forest in Gangneung and Samcheok, Gangwon, from Saturday burned down about 30 homes and at least 311 people were evacuated.

Another fire broke out in Sangju, North Gyeongsang, on Saturday, and was put out by Sunday morning. It burned down about 13 hectares of forests, killing one hiker and injuring two more.

About 215 residents in the city were evacuated to a community center on Saturday.

“Our neighbors told us there was a wildfire spreading,” said Choi Jong-pil, a 76-year-old who lost his home in Gangneung. “I could see the fire spreading around my house and I only had time to take some important documents and leave with my wife, who has trouble walking.”

All that is left of Choi’s 100 square meter (1,076 square foot) house is a few pieces of the steel roof and bits of his refrigerator.

“We spent the night at my daughter’s house,” Choi said. “I’m not sure where we should go from here.”

Many of the homes located near the mountain in Gangneung crumbled in the fire, leaving only skeletal structures behind. Some people were seen digging the ashes to salvage valuables.

“All I’ve got left with me are the clothes that I am wearing,” said Park Geun-hwa, a 60-year-old who lived close to Choi, as she dug through the remains of her home. “I don’t know where to spend the night tonight.”

Park’s 82.5 square meter home completely burned down. She was on vacation with her family when she received a call from a neighbor that her house was on fire. By the time she got home, there was nothing left.

“All of my valuables were lost in the fire,” she said.

The situation is no different for Cho Young-nam, a 59-year-old resident of the town who received a call from his neighbor saying his house was on fire while he was at work.

“I jumped into the house while it was on fire and tried to put the fire out on my own,” he said. “My neighbors pulled me out of the house when it was filled with smoke. I wish I could’ve come home faster. I could’ve salvaged some of my valuables.”

Two wildfires swept through Gangwon from Saturday. The fire in the mountains of Eoheul-ri, Seongsan-myeon, Gangneung, began around 3:32 p.m. on Saturday, according to authorities.

Another fire at a mountain in Jeom-ri, Dogye-eup, Samcheock, began on Saturday morning. The two locations are some 55 kilometers (34 miles) apart and both are less than 20 kilometers from the sea.

The Korea Forest Service said while the exact causes of the fires are unknown, it is likely the fires began with hikers not properly putting out cigarettes or cooking in the forests, which is illegal unless done in designated areas.

By Sunday morning, the Korea Forest Service, Ministry of Public Safety and Security, Ministry of Defense and local governments had dispatched a total of about 5,900 soldiers, public officials and firefighters and 23 helicopters, about 70 firefighting trucks and 10 water pumps to Gangneung.

The fire in Gangneung was put out on Sunday morning. Many of the 311 people evacuated found makeshift shelters in Seongsan and Gangneung elementary schools and an elderly community center.

In fighting the fire in Samcheok, the government dispatched about 2,400 soldiers, public officials and firefighters, and about 26 helicopters, 23 firefighting trucks and 10 water pumps.

The fire in Samcheok burned down two abandoned homes and 30 people were evacuated. It had burned down about 80 hectares of forest and was 30 percent put out as of Sunday afternoon.

“We’re having a hard time putting out the fire because the winds are blowing at about 10 meters per second,” said an official of the Korea Forest Service.

The highest wind speed in Gangneung on Saturday was 21 to 24 meters per second, and in Samcheok it was about 23.1 meters per second, matching in velocity with the highest wind speed of the 2012 Typhoon Bolaven in Gangwon.

The Korea Forest Service on Saturday night released the red alert on wildfires, the highest level of alert on a four-stage alert system released when the Korea Forest Service thinks that more than 70 percent of the country is at severe risk of having a wildfire breakout.

“As the dry weather continues this spring season without much rainfall, the number of wildfires is also growing,” said the Korea Forest Service in its statement.

The Korea Forest Service said 392 wildfires broke out from January to the end of April, a 31 percent increase from the 300 wildfires in the same period last year. It said 50 percent of the fires were due to lack of caution by hikers.

Despite the rapid spread of the fires and its destruction of homes, the Ministry of Public Safety and Security did not send out a disaster warning text message concerning the fire to the residents of the affected areas. The only text message it sent on Saturday was one requesting people to take extra care when entering the mountains to stop wildfires from starting.

“The ministry did not send the disaster warning message because there was no request from the Korea Forest Service or local governments of Gangwon or Gangneung,” said an official of the ministry. “They are the ones in charge of fighting wildfires.”

BY PARK JIN-HO, KIM BANG-HYUN [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]