Chopper problems impeded fight against wildfires
The National Forest Service (NFS) acknowledged Thursday that problems with firefighting equipment and helicopters hampered its efforts to extinguish a massive wildfire along the eastern coastal mountains in early March.
At a 2 p.m. press briefing at the Government Complex in Daejeon, the NFS admitted that it was able to operate only about 20 helicopters daily out of 36 owned by the service. They are designed to carry water to fire-stricken areas.
According to a forest service official who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity, such helicopters are required to undergo maintenance after 50 hours of flying. “When the wildfire was at its peak, multiple helicopters had to be deployed simultaneously, which also limited operations because so many had to be maintained,” the official said.
To make up for the shortage of NFS choppers, helicopters owned by various regional governments, the Defense Ministry, the National Fire Agency and the National Police Agency were deployed to the massive fire in Uljin, North Gyeongsang and Samcheok, Gangwon. Over 70,000 personnel from various government agencies and the military were enlisted in the effort.
The blaze started in Uljin on March 4 and became the country's most devastating on record as it spread to nearby areas in Gangwon.
It took more than 213 hours to put out the main fire, the longest time ever to extinguish a blaze since records began in 1986. The previous record was 191 hours during wildfires in Gangwon in 2000.
643 facilities, including 319 homes, were reported to have been damaged by the fires in Uljin and Samcheok, with NFS chef Choi Byeong-am saying that an estimated 20,923 hectares of woodland were scorched by the fire.
Amid the worst winter drought in 50 years, a total of 304 wildfires were reported in the country between last October and March. That figure represents a near-doubling from the 167 wildfires that occurred in the same time frame the previous year.
In response to the shortage of firefighting helicopters that became evident during the March wildfire, the NFS also announced at Thursday’s press conference that it plans to purchase four additional choppers by 2027 and replace its current fire trucks with higher-capacity vehicles.
The service also plans to expand its dedicated firefighting brigade, which is currently staffed by 435 firefighters paid 2.5 million won ($2,061) a month, as well as raise their salaries.
BY MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]