Wildfire burns a blazing scar across Gangwon
By 5 p.m. Friday, Gangwon authorities said the main blaze in Goseong was extinguished, along with 80 percent of the forest fire in neighboring Inje County and 90 percent in Gangneung.
Local authorities declared a national disaster at 9 a.m. on Friday across Goseong, Sokcho, Gangneung, Donghae and Inje, all in Gangwon, entitling them to receive emergency relief. President Moon Jae-in ordered the government to review declaring the areas a special disaster zone, which would entitle residents to receive special financial, administrative and medical support. There have been five special disaster zone designations since Moon came into office in May 2017.
Schools in Gangwon were closed, trains and legal trials delayed and some conscripts were even allowed to postpone their compulsory two-year military service.
The state-run Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) announced that the fire seemed to have been sparked by a power switch at a gas station in Goseong, just miles south of the border with North Korea. According to Kepco, “an alien substance” blown by the wind caught on an electric wire connected to a power switch, causing a spark, which grew into a fire.
No further detail was given about the unidentified substance.
The fire spread quickly to mountains in the vicinity, carried by winds with speeds of up to 27 meters (88.5 feet) per second overnight.
Gangwon authorities said Friday at 11 a.m., after the main blaze came under control, the fire affected nearly 525 hectares of forest in Gangwon - more than the size of Yeouido, which is 290 hectares. Of that area, 250 hectares were in Goseong and Sokcho; 250 hectares in Gangneung; and 25 hectares in Inje.
At least one person in Goseong died, and 11 sustained injuries, most minor. One 58-year-old man was found lying dead on a road in Goseong at around 8:20 p.m. Thursday.
In Goseong, at least 125 houses and six warehouses were burned. In Inje, one warehouse, four vinyl greenhouses and one building were burned, as well as 56 houses in Gangneung. In Sokcho, some 209 buildings came into contact with the flames, including 35 houses, 24 accommodation facilities and 20 warehouses.
Nearly half of the establishments affected by the fire in Sokcho were on an open film set of a 2007 Korean drama, “Daejoyoung.”
Over 4,000 people in Goseong and Sokcho evacuated to nearby elementary schools and gyms overnight, and most returned home by Friday afternoon. Some 400 people evacuated in Gangneung and Donghae.
Telecommunications systems malfunctioned, including operations at 79 base stations and 172 repeaters. Some households went dark after electrical wires caught fire.
Some 52 schools in Gangwon were closed Friday, mostly in Goseong and Sokcho. A warehouse in an elementary school in Goseong was completely burned, and so were two warehouses and a security guard post at a school in Sokcho.
On Moon’s order, the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations, said it shared information on the blaze with North Korean officials through the South-North liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, given that Gangwon is right below the border separating the countries.
Depending on the situation, further consultations with the North may ensue, said Lee Eugene, the ministry’s deputy spokesperson.
Moon, after canceling a planned attendance at an event commemorating Arbor Day, spent all Friday morning receiving updates on the wildfire and traveled to Gangwon in the afternoon to talk with government officials in charge of containing it.
Moon also dropped by a school in Goseong, where displaced residents found refuge.
Moon’s deputy spokesperson Ko Min-jung said the president ordered relevant government ministries on Thursday night to deploy “all available resources” to prevent the fire from spreading.
Yoon Do-han, Moon’s senior secretary for public affairs, said the president visited the Blue House National Crisis Management Center at 12:20 a.m. on Friday to preside over an emergency meeting and directly receive briefings from authorities working on the blaze.
Moon was quoted by Yoon as urging the government to provide necessities to Gangwon residents and other “protection measures” such as medical services and psychological therapy.
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [email@example.com]