All-out battle under way to extinguish east coast wildfires

March 7, 2022

 Firefighting authorities on Monday mobilized all available manpower and equipment to contain the main fires in the eastern coastal areas hit by massive wildfires for the fourth day, as strong winds there showed signs of fading.

The wildfires spurred by high winds amid dry conditions have burned an estimated 16,755 hectares of woodland, the size of 23,466 soccer fields, in Uljin, 330 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and neighboring coastal areas as of 6 a.m. Monday, according to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters.

A firefighting official watches as a mountain burns in Uljin, southeastern South Korea, on March 7, 2022. (Yonhap)
Korea Forest Service helicopters participate in firefighting operations in Donghae, eastern South Korea, on March 7, 2022. (Yonhap)
Firefighters put out smoldering fires on a mountain in Donghae, eastern South Korea, on March 7, 2022. (Yonhap)

A firefighting official watches as a mountain burns in Uljin, southeastern South Korea, on March 7, 2022. (Yonhap)

No casualties were reported, but 512 facilities, including 343 homes, were damaged by the wildfires, the agency said, noting the affected areas also include Samcheok, Gangneung, Donghae, Yeongweol and Daegu’s Dalseong County.

It said 7,355 people in 4,659 households were evacuated in the areas as of 9 p.m. Sunday.

Most of the displaced people stayed awake all night at temporary shelters in Uljin and other areas, waiting for the fires to end quickly.

“My house was burnt down and I have no hope. All I have now is my body and the clothes I’m wearing,” a grim-faced Uljin evacuee in his 60s said.

The fire extinguishing rates reached 50 percent in Uljin, 80 percent in Samcheok, 90 percent in Gangneung, 50 percent in Yeongweol and 40 percent in Dalseong as of late Monday morning, the agency said, noting some 18,000 firefighting personnel, 95 helicopters and 781 vehicles have been mobilized.

The blaze began on Friday morning in Uljin and rapidly spread north to Samcheok in the afternoon, driven by strong wind whose speed reached nearly 30 mps.

Authorities regard Monday as the best opportunity to put out the wildfires, as the wind was blowing weakly at 1 to 2 mps on the east coast and at 0.5 mps in Yeongweol. The wind speed has also dropped to 3 to 4 mps in the Uljin area.

In Gangneung, Donghae and Samcheok, all in Gangwon Province, big fires were brought under control as of 11 a.m., firefighters said, adding no flames were observed and only smoke was rising from the wildfire sites.

The authorities said they aim to put out the main fires during the day as the weather conditions are expected to worsen from Tuesday afternoon, when the east wind blows.

“The focus of today’s firefighting efforts is to contain the main fires but it is difficult to say all the blazes can be extinguished during the day,” said Choi Byeong-am, head of the Korea Forest Service (KFS), in a news conference.

“As the east wind will blow from Tuesday afternoon, the main fires have to be put under control before then,” he said.

The government on Sunday designated the eastern coastal areas ravaged by the massive wildfires as a special disaster zone and vowed swift support for the victims.

The government on Monday issued a statement to the public, urging the people to be very careful not to inadvertently start a forest fire and vowing severe punishment for those who cause a fire intentionally or negligently.

Police and the KFS are speeding up their investigations into the exact cause of the wildfires in Uljin without ruling out the possibility of the fires being started by cigarette butts from motorists.

They said a hunt was under way to find the owners of three vehicles that passed through an Uljin mountain believed to be the original point of ignition on Friday morning.

According to surveillance camera footage released earlier, the three vehicles passed 1 to 7 minutes before smoke and flames rose from the mountainside and spread to the surrounding mountains.