Smoke jumpers burn with passion for jobBeing in a cyclical business means dealing with busy times, and quiet times. That principle also applies to the business of fighting wildfires.
“When it’s springtime we operate around the clock,” says Cheon Sae-wook, an official with the Forest Aviation Office. “But,” he adds quickly, “that does not mean that we let our guard down” during the rest of the year.
The office, under the auspices of the Korea Forest Service, is charged with putting out or managing all fires in the nation’s mountainous regions. Typically, the period from March to May is the heart of the firefighting season: 70 percent of Korea’s wildfires break out during this mostly dry period of the year.
From 1998 to 2002, fire agency statistics show, 377 of 539 fire incidents occurred during that three-month span.
What does the staff do the rest of the year? Sit around and play “Chutes and Ladders”? Not quite. The winter period from December to February boasts the second-highest number of wildfires ― about 22 percent of the year’s total.
“Human error is the number one reason” for fires, Mr. Cheon says. “A little bit of carelessness and you end up burning down a whole hillside.”
The amount of rainfall, winds and accumulation of dead leaves combine to determine how fast and how far a fire will spread.
Aside from campers carelessly throwing a match, many a fire is sparked when farmers burn the remaining field cover or on traditional holidays such as Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving, when families pay respects at their ancestors’ tombs.
At such visits, families may cook food near the graves, or smoke cigarettes, creating ripe conditions for fires.
The office has divided South Korea into seven fire districts, with plans to add a seventh district in November.
Each district works with a staff of 30 to 35 people, specialized as either helicopter pilots, air firefighters, maintenance workers or administrative staff.
The bulk of the agency’s helicopter fleet are Russian KA-32T choppers with a 3,000-liter (793-gallon) water-carrying capacity.
Korea received its first order of the helicopters in 1991, as part of an economic exchange program with Russia.
“We are still getting the things at a relatively cheap price,” Mr. Cheon says. “Normally, one would have to pay 15 billion won ($12 million) for a helicopter of a similar capacity, but we are still getting them at about one-third that price.”
A typical fire mission works like this: A helicopter ferries a team of firefighters to the scene, who battle the fire on the ground after rappeling to earth by rope. They work in areas that are in many cases unreachable by other means, or so remote that reaching it by foot would take too long.
The firefighters are loaded down with equipment such as fire masks, and portable pumps that contain water and special chemicals for extinguishing a blaze.
Carrying so much equipment while wearing a specially coated uniform is not an easy task; a typical fire kit weighs about 20 kilograms (44 pounds).
“But [the kit is] essential for us to do our work and for our own survival,” says Cho Chang-ho, the leader of an air firefighter crew with six years of experience.
Helicopters can only help in suppressing a fire when pilots get a clear view of the landscape. After sunset, the land-based firefighters are the final line of defense between a fire and a possible catastrophe.
“Even in daylight it takes time for a helicopter to get to the nearest lake, refill the water tanks and come back to the fire,” explains Mr. Cho. “What we do then is try to establish a line of defense by cutting trees and digging trenches.”
The physical demands of the job and the constant threat of personal injury add up to tough entry restrictions for these all-male fire brigades.
Ninety percent of the 46 air firefighters in the country have served in the Korean Army’s special forces or the marine corps of the navy, where they received training suitable for the job.
The helicopter pilots’ work is quite demanding, too. Shim Hyeon-bok, 44, who learned to fly in the army and has worked for the office for eight years, can easily recount many hair-raising experiences
In an incident that occurred in April 2000 in Samcheok, Gangwon province, Mr. Shim says, he was about 50 meters up in the air, ready to dump water over a burning area. An air current suddenly caught the helicopter and it lost about three meters of altitude. For a split second, Mr. Shim says he did not have control of the chopper.
“Unpredictable winds are my enemy,” he says. “You never know when an air stream will hit you from above, or any other direction.”
Maintaining the right altitude is vital when deploying the air firefighters to the ground, or when spraying water on hot spots in a fire.
Having flown missions up to 12 hours long, the pilot also views the unpredictable working hours as a tough part of the job.
Nobody punches a clock in this line of work. “Once we are on the ground we just work until the fire is put out,” says Mr. Cho.
Official working hours for government employees do not apply to those in the Forest Aviation Service’s employ.
While Mr. Cheon and his co-workers are busy fighting fires in remote wooded areas, others applied their mental faculties to combating fire in built-up areas ― including Seoul.
After working 13 years as a firefighter, Ahn Seong-il shifted into fire investigation. Mr. Ahn is now in his eighth year as a fire investigator, roaming Seoul to areas that have been destroyed or damaged by fires.
Although official data have not been released yet, he believes that electrical problems were the primary cause of fires in the Seoul area in 2002 ― the same reason as the previous year. “One-third of fires occur due to problems related to electric wires,” he says.
Fires led to 60 deaths in the city of Seoul last year and caused 11.8 million won in damage.
Mr. Ahn’s most critical task is finding the source of a fire. Armed with knowledge of how fire attacks certain materials, he says, investigators look for patterns created by the ensuing smoke.
The toughest part of his job, Mr. Ahn says, is a lack of material evidence.
“I would like to describe my line of work as a job that creates something out of nothing,” he says. “The fire itself destroys everything. So you have to be able to visualize the scene before the fire and then work from there.”
While many in the forest fire-fighting community say their work is not the most glorious in the world, knowing their efforts may save someone’s life makes up for many of the shortcomings. As Mr. Cheon puts it, “For me it’s a duty that I am proud of and that’s what keeps me going.
“We’ll be monitoring the upcoming Lunar New Year very closely,” he says. “No holidays for us.”
by Brian Lee
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