Main blaze of east coast wildfires extinguished
The main blaze of the extensive wildfires along the eastern coast has been extinguished after burning for more than eight days, the Korea Forest Service (KFS) said Sunday morning.
KFS chief Choi Byeong-am said that although the main fire has been extinguished, firefighters are still working to put out smaller fires scattered across the region, adding that weekend rains across the peninsula helped tame the flames.
The blaze, which started in Uljin, North Gyeongsang on March 4, burned continuously for 213 hours as it spread to neighboring Samcheok in Gangwon and torched 20,923 hectares of woodland.
That area is roughly equivalent to one-third of Seoul.
The 213 hours broke the existing record for the longest-burning wildfire set in 2000, when an east coast blaze burnt from April 7 to 15 for 191 hours and scorched 23,794 hectares of woodland spanning five regions, including Uljin and Gangwon's Goseong, Gangneung, Donghae and Samcheok.
Uljin and the latter three Gangwon towns were once again affected by this past week’s fires, with Uljin suffering the most damage at 18,463 hectares, followed by Samcheok at 2,460 hectares.
According to reports, the fires in Gangneung and Donghae were started separately by a disaffected resident committing arson. That blaze was extinguished earlier last week.
If the damage in Gangneung and Donghae are included in the total, the wildfires have collectively scorched 24,923 hectares — more than the 2000 fire.
No casualties have been reported, but 643 facilities, including 319 homes, were reported to have been damaged from the wildfires in the Uljin and Samcheok area.
A key focal point of the containment effort was the Geumgang Pine Tree colony, a massive forest of pine trees more than 200 years old, in Uljin.
Spread across an area of 2,247 hectares, the Geumgang Pine Tree colony is home to over 8,000 pine trees aged 200 years and older. The trees are prized by architectural heritage specialists for their high-quality wood, which is considered a prime construction material for traditional building restoration projects.
Although the pine colony was threatened by the wildfire’s approach overnight Tuesday and early Wednesday, firefighting officials said they managed to prevent the fires from spreading to that area.
The wildfire is suspected to have begun on the morning of March 4 near a mountain in Ducheon-ri, Uljin County, and spread rapidly northward to Samcheok amid strong winds reaching nearly 30 meters per second, or 67 miles per hour.
Police and the KFS said they are expanding their probe into the origin of the wildfires in Uljin without ruling out the possibility that the flames were ignited by cigarette butts from motorists.
Roadside CCTV footage suggested that the fire may have been caused by a cigarette butt discarded by a driver on a road passing a mountain in Buk-myeon, Ducheon-ri.
The KFS deployed over 84 helicopters and 3,970 personnel to put out the fire, with United States Forces Korea (USFK) sending five helicopters to assist with firefighting efforts.
The Korean military also deployed 1,600 troops and 48 helicopters to support firefighters.
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]