Blaze put out after it crossed DMZ

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Blaze put out after it crossed DMZ

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A wildfire blazes beyond a wire fence in the demilitarized zone in Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi, on Monday night. [NEWS1]

A fire that began on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Monday raged across the border to the South, where it was put out by fire authorities on Tuesday afternoon.

According to the Korea Forest Service (KFS), Seoul’s top agency in charge of forest management, the fire began at around 6 p.m. on Monday on North Korean-controlled territory in the DMZ just across from the South’s Yeoncheon County in Gyeonggi.

Around 5:22 a.m. early Tuesday morning, the fire spread to the South across the military demarcation line, according to South Korean fire authorities.

It was finally extinguished at around 3:11 p.m. after the KFS deployed five helicopters to douse the flames with firefighting chemicals.

Approximately 450 hectares (1.7 square miles) of forest in the DMZ are believed to have been lost to the fire as of Tuesday morning, though the total area affected since has not yet been determined as of press time.

Around 80 percent of the affected area is believed to be in North Korea. No casualties have been reported in the South.

The primary difficulty faced by fire authorities in putting out the flames was the fact that the fire occurred within the military-controlled DMZ, where civilian access is heavily restricted. Fire authorities had to gain military approval before dispatching helicopters to the site, where heavy smoke hindered firefighting operations. Thankfully, relatively weak winds prevented the fire from spreading further within the DMZ, which is largely composed of woodlands that are susceptible to fire.

If the fire had spread, firefighting vehicles and personnel were stationed just beyond the civilian access line near the DMZ. According to KFS Minister Kim Jae-hyun, two or three helicopters will be deployed in rotation over a few days to conduct wrap-up firefighting operations and monitor whether another fire will come down from the North.

Two other smaller fires occurred in the DMZ the same day in the counties of Goseong and Inje in Gangwon, but they were also extinguished by Tuesday afternoon, according to the KFS.

This series of blazes is only the second major wildfire to take place near the border between the two Koreas that happened this month. The last fire, which blazed through northern Gangwon in the South on April 4, killed two people and burned some 1,750 hectares of forest and land before it was completely extinguished days later.

At the time, given the affected areas’ proximity to the border, President Moon Jae-in ordered South Korean authorities to cooperate with the North to put out the fire in case the blaze spread into the DMZ.

These instructions, however, were slammed by the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, whose spokesman Rep. Min Kyung-wook claimed Moon was more concerned about the North than his own people.

But Monday’s incident appears to validate the president’s concerns, highlighting again the North’s inability to combat major natural disasters due to its lack of equipment and technology.

In early March, a similar fire near Yeoncheon that started from the North took two days to extinguish, while a massive blaze that began in North Korea in 2000 spread to the South’s Goseong County, leading to enormous property damage for locals.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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