An inadequate responseGoseong County and the cities of Sokcho, Gangneung, Donghae and Inje County along the northeastern coast in Gangwon were devastated by a sprawling wildfire and have now been designated as a national disaster zone.
Over 4,000 people had to be evacuated since the fire broke out on Thursday evening. Mountainous areas of Gangwon that have already lost 2.32 million trees over the last three years to make room for solar panels have become bare to the extent of 735 soccer fields of forest area. The fire came under control, but the public is now suspicious and insecure about the disaster control capacity of state authorities.
The fire broke at 7:17 p.m. on Thursday and by 9:44 p.m., the firefighting authority raised the alert to the highest level. Under the three-level firefighting scale, the first level is triggered when a fire affects a restricted area, the second when it broadens to other cities and the third when it becomes a national-scale fire.
President Moon Jae-in made a call to the national disaster headquarters about 20 minutes past midnight Friday. He ordered “all possible” measures as a “pre-emptive” action to prevent casualties. But by midnight, the fire had already spread to multiple cities across Gangwon.
National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong had been facing a National Assembly steering committee questioning since Thursday afternoon. The meeting went into a two-hour break starting at 7:45 p.m.
He ended the legislative schedule at 10:38 p.m. During his last hour with lawmakers, he did not brief the fire to the lawmakers. Lawmakers should be reprimanded for keeping the security adviser waiting as a crisis was in the making, but Chung faces a greater responsibility for neglecting his duty to the people of Gangwon. Chung arrived at the Blue House near midnight.
Public broadcaster KBS also came under criticism as it did not respond to the disaster in a timely manner even as residents had to evacuate after fire swept across populated Sokcho neighborhoods.
It put up breaking news about the fire at 10:53 p.m., only to go back on air for its regular show at 11:05 p.m. Why did it have to air the Kim Jae-dong show, which has been criticized as propaganda for the liberal government, while lives were in danger?
KBS also did not bother to air sign-language interpretation during the breaking news broadcast. Residents had to send pictures and videos of the life-and-death situation on mobile platforms while TV broadcasters neglected their job. One tweeted, “Save us, It’s so scary!” The lax and slow response from authorities and TV broadcasters underscored the country’s slack disaster response and control system.
Fires accompanied by strong winds have become a regular occurrence in Gangwon in the spring. There must be more systematic readiness for wildfires. Authorities must draw up a comprehensive manual on wildfire responses based on the studies of past cases and geographic and climate conditions. Lessons must be learned from this disaster.
JoongAng Sunday, April 6, Page 30