SEOUL (AFP) - A giant forest fire swept across swathes of South Korea on Friday (April 5), as authorities declared a rare national disaster, deploying some 900 fire engines and tens of thousands of personnel to bring it under control.
Apocalyptic images on television and social media showed walls of flame lighting up the night, buildings ablaze, and clouds of smoke billowing across hillsides during the day.
The fire broke out late on Thursday alongside a road in the town of Goseong, in the far north-east of the country and only around 45km from the border with nuclear-armed North Korea.
Fanned by strong winds, the blaze quickly spread through the mountainous area, incinerating 400 homes and 500 hectares of land, according to the government.
Nearly 4,200 people were evacuated and one man died, the authorities said, while 35 people were injured.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited the areas in Gangwon province most affected by the blaze, meeting residents who were forced to leave their homes.
Mr Moon and his staff wore yellow jackets, which symbolise situations of national emergency. The President’s approval rating hit a record low of 41 per cent on Friday over concerns about the economy.
Mr Moon visited an elementary school in Goseong where evacuees were staying, and Jangcheon village, where many residential houses are reported to have burnt down.
“I hope you take extra care of displaced victims who – after having lost their homes in an instant – may now find time to catch their breath,” Mr Moon told fire officials.
The National Fire Agency said more than 870 fire engines and some 10,000 emergency personnel were dispatched to fight the blaze.
The military sent 32 helicopters, along with fire engines of its own and 16,500 soldiers, to help.
“Fortunately, the main fire has been brought under control,” provincial governor Choi Moon-soon said in a radio interview with TV channel YTN, but added that others were still burning.
The central government declared a state of national disaster, entitling affected areas to special assistance including goods and equipment, and banning entry to dangerous zones.
The last time Seoul made such a declaration was in 2007, when a crude oil carrier leaked thousands of tonnes of oil into the sea off the west coast.
Mr Moon told officials to liaise with North Korean authorities if the fire approaches the border, the presidential office said.
The Ministry of Unification said the government has shared information with North Korea about the fire and rescue efforts, and expressed hope for bilateral cooperation if necessary, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.
Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said the government has earmarked 4.25 billion won (S$5 million) for emergency recovery efforts.
The authorities are investigating the cause of the blaze. They first suspected an explosion of equipment installed on a telephone post, as witnesses said they heard a blast.
After conducting a preliminary examination, the Korea Electric Power Corp. said the switch on the pole is unlikely to have exploded on its own, adding that it could have been a spark created from wires and dust in the very dry air.
Surveillance footage obtained by Yonhap from a nearby gas station showed sparks from a roadside switchgear instantly growing into a fire. The wires on the utility pole that were connected to the switch were swinging violently due to the high winds.