Forest Fires in South and North Korea

08 April 2005


For Satellite images and detailed reports from on-site teams and the media: See GFMC Update of 7 April 2005.


Yangyang named a disaster zone

President Roh Moo-hyun yesterday designated Yangyang as a special disaster zone, promising massive financial support and tax breaks for the victims of a major wildfire this week. The government will provide 2.9 million to 5 million won to those whose houses were destroyed by the fire on Monday. Farmers will also be eligible for an additional 5 million won for damage to their land, livestock and crops, officials said. The fires burned down 250 hectares of forest and destroyed 246 buildings including 160 houses nationwide, according to the National Emergency Management Agency. The government is also seeking ways to cooperate with the North in case of fires in the Demilitarized Zone, after a brushfire from North Korea spread into the South and destroyed woodlands near the border. At a meeting between the government and the ruling Uri Party yesterday, heads of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Forest Service and Uri policymakers discussed a possible mutual agreement with the North on fire prevention in the DMZ, according to Uri. The wildfire, which started in the North on Monday and swept into South Korea's Goseung in the DMZ, was finally contained by Wednesday afternoon after 33 hours. The Goseung fire was triggered by North Korea's military as they periodically burn weeds and shrubbery in the DMZ for clear visibility of the South, Yonhap news agency quoted military sources as saying. Rep. Maeng Hyung-kyu of the main opposition Grand National Party also called for cooperation with the North to curb forest fires. "Given that South Korea has had various talks with the North, we also need to discuss a joint system to prevent wildfires (in the DMZ)," Maeng said at a meeting of senior GNP lawmakers. A bigger forest fire swept through Yangyang, south of Goseung, on Tuesday, the national tree day, destroying 250 hectares of forests and leaving 340 people homeless. The 1,600-year-old Naksan Temple in a mountainous region was also destroyed and two national treasures,including a bronze bell, were damaged. Field research teams began a full investigation of damage in Yangyang and Goseung on Wednesday but their assessment has not been completed yet. So far the government has decided to provide funds of 2 billion won to victims, along with various relief efforts.
By Jin Hyun-joo 
Source: The Korea Herald, 8 April 2005

Lessons from forest fires
The wildfire that had been raging through forestland in Gangwon Province for three consecutive days was finally brought under control on Wednesday. Though the toll did not include any fatality, its impact was still devastating. Left behind were vast swaths of forestland covered with ashes in the eastern part of the province. It will take a long period of time until nature restores itself to a semblance of its previous state. The nation is given the task of speeding up restoration. It will also have to devise an effective way to fight forest fires in the future. On the eastern side of the mountain range that bisects the province, a forest fire is almost an annual occurrence, with the foehn wind being the cause. As the wind moves up the slope on the west side, the air expands and cools, causing water vapor to precipitate. As the wind passes over the crest and descends on the east side, the dried air condenses and heats, pushing the temperature higher than when it was moist and making the forestland in its path more easily flammable. Little can be done about this natural phenomenon. But that does not mean nothing can be done to reduce potential damage. Both the central and provincial governments will have to spend more on firefighting and damage-control programs, including the purchase of helicopters and the clearing of land for firebreaks. It will be also necessary to run a community program to teach residents how to protect homes and property from wildfires. A poignant reminder that such a program is badly needed is the loss of valuable cultural properties housed in Naksansa, a 1,300-year-old temple on the eastern coast whose buildings were burned down many times in the past, with their last previous destruction caused by the Korean War. A community program could have helped salvage a bronze bell, designated as Treasure No. 479, and other properties of artistic, historical and cultural value before the temple buildings, reconstructed in 1953, were burned down again this time. As one Buddhist monk observed, the loss of the valuable properties was a man-made disaster. It is not Naksansa alone that was exposed to the risk of a wildfire. With almost all renowned Buddhist temples located deep in the mountains, it is urgent to develop strategies to protect their cultural properties from wildfires. Indeed, there were more than 20 forest fires throughout the nation during the week, a reminder that mountainside temples will have to guard against them, particularly during the dry spring season. Despite initial bungling, the firefighters did well to stop the wildfire from spreading to Mt. Seorak, a scenic tourist attraction. What counted was that firefighting was effectively organized this time through coordination by the central and provincial governments. 
Source: The Korea Herald, 8 April 2005


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