Forest Fire Situation in Korea (IFFN No. 26)

Fire Situation in the Republic of Korea

(IFFN No. 26 – January 2002, p. 61-65)


This report covers forest fires in South Korea only because limited information is available on North Korea.

Fire environment, fire regimes, the ecological role of fire

Korea is located between 33°06′ to 43°01’N and 124°11′ to 131°53′ E, a peninsular country in the eastern part of the Continent of Asia and in the western part of the Pacific Ocean. The peninsula has a continental climate, except for the month of August when its climate characteristics are oceanic. The summer is characterized by a wet monsoon climate and is hot and humid with frequent rain showers; and it is cold and dry in winter. Seasonal changes are gradual but distinctive, and spring and autumn are relatively shorter seasons than those of summer and winter. Forest fires in Korea occur frequently in spring and autumn because those seasons are drier than summer and winter; summer has considerable rainfall and winter has appreciable snow. Forest fire prevention periods of South Korea are from 15 February to 15 May in spring and 1 November to 15 December in late autumn to early winter.

Table 1. Forest fire occurrence by season during the period 1995-1999

  Mean of 5-yearsperiod Year
Numberof fires Portion(%) 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
Spring 284 63 414 326 310 171 197
Summer 4 1 2 3 7 1 5
Autumn 29 6 27 12 79 14 14
Winter 136 30 187 186 128 79 99
Total 452 100 630 527 524 265 315


South Korea is classified into 16 eco-regions by cluster analysis of such variables as latitude, longitude, seasonal mean temperature, and seasonal precipitation measured at 28 Weather Forecast Offices and 40 Weather Observation Stations for 30 years from 1961 to 1990. Among the 16 eco-regions, the forests of three regions, Kangwon coastal, Woolyong coastal, and Hyung-Taewha coastal (eastern coastal region of Korea), are vulnerable to fire because they have very low rainfall in the spring; and foehn and quasi-foehn winds abruptly interchange many times in a day. Under these meteorological conditions, wildfires spread rapidly and over large areas. Moreover, vegetation is mainly composed of Pinus densiflora that is inclined to ignite easily. In April 1996, a large forest fire burned 3762 ha in Kosung, Kangwon coastal eco-region.

It must be noted that forest fires in Che-ju Province are the consequence of intentionally set fires in bushlands to control insects (ticks) that are harmful to humans.

Major wildfire impacts on people, property, and natural resources during the 1990s

Forest fires are commonly ignited in the lower part of a mountainous area and spread to the top of the mountain. Thus, fires generally did not affect people or dwellings. However, the 1996 Kosung forest fire impacted natural resources and people. According to the investigation, it burned 3762 ha of forest, 16,215 kg of pine-mushrooms (Tricholoma matsutake), and many tombs. Damage cases totaled 66, and the number of damages awarded reached 15.268 million. In addition, it damaged many residences and structures.

Wildfire statistics

Statistical data on forest fires during the period 1990 to 1999 are given in Table 2. There is no typical tendency, but in the 1990s a few large forest fires occurred due to the failure of the initial attack. For comparison with the 1980s, Table 3 shows the wildland fire database for the period 1980-1989.

Between 1990 and 1999 an average of 336 fires occurred annually and affected an average area of 1399 ha. Between 1980 and 1989 only 238 fires occurred, affecting 1102 ha.

Table 4 shows the details of fire causes for the period 1995-1999. The category “other causes“ of fires have been incorporated in Table 2 under the column “unknown causes”.


Figure 1. Eco-regions of South Korea.

 Fire management organization

Forest fire management in Korea is under the responsibility of the Korea Forest Service, Department of Forest Fire Prevention, and the Aerial Forest Control Offices. Their tasks include:

  • Wildfire prevention
  • Establishment and operating the headquarters for wildfire prevention
  • Supervision of wildfire prevention
  • Administration of Forest Service personnel
  • Operation and managing of forest protection equipment
  • Education for wildfire prevention
  • Improvement of wildfire management
  • Forest preservation

Figure 2. Large-scale forest fires during the period 1980-1999.

Table 2. Wildfire database for the period 1990-1999.


Total No. of Fires on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land Total Area Burned on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land
Area of Forest Burned 


Area of Other Wooded Land and Other Land Burned
Human Causes 



Natural Causes


Unknown Causes 


No. ha ha ha No. No. No.
1990 71 175
1991 139 429
1992 180 640
1993 278 1 752
1994 433 781
1995 630 1 031 502 128
1996 527 5 368 389 138
1997 524 2 330 393 131
1998 265 1 014 233 32
1999 315 473 318 38
Average 336.2   1 399.3   367   93

 Table 3. Wildfire database for the period 1980-1989


Total No. of Fires on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land Total Area Burned on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land
Area of Forest Burned 


Area of Other Wooded Land and Other Land Burned
Human Causes 



Natural Causes


Unknown Causes 


No. ha ha ha No. No. No.
1980 403 1 218  
1981 252 814  
1982 136 509  
1983 135 919  
1984 359 1 164  
1985 165 363  
1986 275 3 417  
1987 87 91  
1988 270 878  
1989 294 1 652  
Average 237.6   1 102.5        

Table 4. Details on wildfire causes during the period 1995-1999

5-years mean Year


Numberof fires Portion(%) 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
Mountain visitor’saccidental fire 222 47 312 248 247 104 197
Levee fires 87 19 138 73 103 65 57
Cigarettes 14 3 37 34
Tomb visitor’saccidental fires 28 6 34 38 33 16 20
Children’saccidental fires 16 4 18 30 10 11 10
Others 93 21 128 138 131 32 38
Total 460 100 630 527 524 265 356

 Tasks in wildfire suppression include:

  • Pre-suppression planning
  • Coordination of wildfire suppression
  • Supervision of the forest aerial control offices
  • Planning and command of aerial operations
  • Operation and management of the communication system
  • Personnel management for air/ground wildfire suppression, including training
  • Damage assessment and rehabilitation

These latter tasks are implemented by the autonomous forest departments at provincial and municipal/local levels.

Using data of the Meteorological Service and fuel moisture data, the Korea Forest Research Institute assesses forest fire danger (forest fire danger map) and reports it to the Korea Forest Service. The Korea Forest Service notifies provincial, municipal, and local autonomous entities on fire danger. The public is informed by mass media, if fire danger is extreme.

When large-scale forest fires occur, the Forest Service establishes a Central Headquarters for fire emergency response coordinated by the director of the Forest Service. The directors of provincial, municipal, and local autonomous entities establish and coordinate local headquarters for comprehensive countermeasures. The heads of all headquarters have authority to mobilize civil defence forces for fighting forest fires.

Forest fire research

Forest fire research in South Korea currently is focusing on:

  • Development of forest fire danger rating models
  • GIS-based forest fire danger index forecasting
  • Ecology and fuels research
  • Fire effects and rehabilitation

Use of prescribed fire

Before the 1950s, prescribed fire was used in Korea for site preparation. However, this method is not used for planting today. In Che-ju Island (Province), prescribed fire is often used in bushlands to control insects and ticks. At Mt. Whawang in Kyungsangnam-Do province, fire is prescribed to maintain mountain grasslands composed of Miscanthus spp. In early spring prescribed fire is also used for preparing the farming of paddy fields. Generally speaking, the forest fire policy of Korea is hardly interested in “let burn” or prescribed burning but concentrates on fire suppression.

Sustainable land-use practices employed to reduce wildfire hazards and wildfire risks

Several decades ago, firebreaks were constructed on the ridges of mountains. These are still visible in some areas, but this practice has been abandoned today.

However, planning to set up a systematic firebreak system is under consideration in the east side of the Tae-back Mountains, Kangwon coastal eco-region and Woolyong coastal eco-region, where forest fires occur frequently.

Public policies concerning fire

The public perception of forest fire is rather negative in Korea. Therefore, the forest fire policy of Korea is focussing on rthe eduction of fire incidents, area burned, and other damages. For example, the statute provides that any use of fire must be practiced under the direct supervision of county officials.

Recently, Korea experienced several large fires that burned more than 100 ha and involved major losses. It is now planning to create laws and regulations on forest fires that would provide compensation to those who have suffered losses from forest fires.

 IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:

Joo-Hoon Lim
Korea Forest Research Institute
Forest Fire Laboratory
207 Cheongnyangni-dong
Seoul 130-012

Fax: ++82-2-9612-746

Country Notes
IFFNNo. 26

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