South Korea — One South Korean was killed and 14 others injured in a mountain fire that spread to residential areas in this southeastern coastal city of Pohang. Police said they are interrogating a middle school student as a suspect.
The fire that started on a hill around 4 p.m. Saturday was almost extinguished by Sunday morning after burning nearly 5 hectares of mostly residential areas, according to firefighters.
The fire killed an 80-something person and left 14 others injured, the firefighters said. About 53 houses were destroyed in the fire.
More than a hundred people were evacuated while more than 2,000 firefighters, mobilized soldiers and government employees struggled to put out the fire, according to National Rescue Services.
The Pohang Bukbu Police Station said a 12-year-old middle school student is being questioned on suspicion of setting the fire.
The boy allegedly set fire to a pile of dry leaves at the foot of the residential area hill with two other friends. As the fire spread, they reported it to fire authorities and ran away, according to the police station.
A police official said, “We are interrogating them over whether their deliberately set the fire.”
Meanwhile, another mountain blaze was spreading Sunday in farming villages in Ulsan, 414 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
About 4,300 firefighters, soldiers and government workers, along with 11 helicopters, were sent to fight the fire that started in a mountain village late Saturday, but they are still struggling to extinguish the spreading fire, according to firefighters.
Three people were injured after inhaling smoke while hundreds of dogs and chickens were killed in the fire, which also consumed 23 buildings and houses and burnt 50 hectares of forests spanning several villages.
Hundreds of villagers evacuated to the three shelters designated by the city government.
Firefighters are working to put out the fire by noon while officials are investigating the exact cause of the fire and the scope of the damage.
One man was killed and 14 others injured Saturday in a wild mountain fire which spread to a residential area in Pohang, North Gyeonsang Province.
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said Sunday that a 79-year-old man surnamed Ahn died while struggling to flee from a burning house in Uhyeon-dong in the southeastern coastal city, while 14 others suffered from bruises and injuries related to smoke inhalation, NEMA added.
The fire was extinguished Sunday morning after consuming 80,000 square meters of forest and 56 houses over about 20 hours, said an official of the agency.
Police said a 12-year-old middle school student admitted that he set fire to a pile of dry leaves at the foot of the residential area out of curiosity.
We plan to send him to a family court. We cannot book him because he is a minor, said an official of the Pohang Bukbu Police Station.
About 120 residents were evacuated to churches and schools in the neighborhood.
Over 2,500 firefighters, along with 11 helicopters and some 100 fire engines were dispatched, but wind of over 35 kilometers per hour fanned the fire, spreading it to nearby residential areas, NEMA said.
In a separate fire on a mountain in Ulsan, Saturday night, one person was injured.
About 4,300 firefighters and soldiers, along with 11 helicopters, were sent to fight this fire, which consumed 23 buildings and houses and burnt 500,000 square meters of forest, spanning several villages. They were able to put it out Sunday afternoon,.
Officials are investigating the exact cause of the fire and the scope of the damage.
The government said it will step up measures to fight mountain fires by mobilizing all available resources.
The forestry and rescue agencies should extinguish mountain fires as soon as possible by using all available resources, said Prime Minister Chung Hong-won in a special order, Sunday.
Chung said that the government will dispatch military forces if needed; and firefighting helicopters within 30 minutes to immediately control any blaze.
About 20 fires were reported nationwide Saturday due mainly to the windy and dry weather, according to NEMA.
Firefighters combated 27 separate mountain fires that blazed across the country over the weekend including incidents in Ulsan and Pohang that led to evacuations, burning of properties and more than 110 hectares, or 271 acres, of forest and at least one death.
The fires were aided by an unusually warm, dry weekend and high winds. But most were caused by human error or, in one case, a boys prank.
Orange and crimson flames blazed across the back hills of Yongheung-dong, northern Pohang in North Gyeongsang, Saturday afternoon, casting a murky gray smoke over the neighborhood.
The fire in the port city started around 3:50 p.m. Saturday and spread rapidly, leading to some three hectares of damage. The fire was contained by firefighters by noon yesterday.
Stiff winds spread the fire to residential areas leading to the death of one 70-year-old local man. Another 14 people were injured, and 56 private residences were torched.
The fire was caused by a 12-year-old middle school boy who set leaves on fire with a lighter as a prank with two other boys in the hills behind Yonghung Elementary School in Pohang, police said.
There were four separate cases of mountain fires on Saturday in Ulsan, including a large forest fire in Eonyang-eup, Ulju County, which began around 8:30 p.m. The fire damaged 23 houses, 50 hectares of land and killed 1,300 livestock including cows and chickens. Two people suffered from burns.
Dozens of villagers were evacuated to nearby towns. Ulsan firefighters and emergency workers had a difficult time containing the fire because of thick smoke and rapid winds, and they continued to spread the fire through yesterday, when it was contained.
Temperatures Saturday soared to the highest in a century for the month of March. The 21 fires starting on Saturday alone on mountains across Gangwon, Gyeonggi, Jeolla, Chungcheong, Gyeongsang and Jeju Island led to an estimated 110 hectares of damage, the Korean Forest Service said.
Since the beginning of this year, there have been 83 mountain fires which led to 137 hectares of damage.
In the same time frame from last year, there were only 19 cases of mountain fires resulting in six hectares of damage.
The Korea Forest Service said that 40 percent of the fires this year were touched off by burning of banks around fields and rice paddies, a method used by farmers to get rid of pests. A further 22 percent were caused by incineration of trash and 14.5 percent by careless cigarette smokers.
Earlier Saturday in Pohang, another forest fire around 2:50 p.m. spread in Yeonil-eup, Nam District, which was contained the next morning around 7 a.m.
Police said a 68-year-old man surnamed Kim had been in the process of disinfecting a beehive by burning mugwort when embers spread because of the wind.
Bonghwa County, also in North Gyeongsang, saw damage of 15 hectares from a mountain fire that began around 3:40 a.m. on Saturday and was contained after 10 a.m. the next morning. Some 900 emergency workers, including all of the countys officials, had difficulty combating the flames, which police suspect started from a cigarette butt discarded by a local resident.
During the four weeks between Feb. 10 and Saturday, Pohang saw an average rainfall of just 8.5 millimeters (0.33 inch), compared to 66.5 millimeters in the same time frame last year. The average rainfall in Pohang for that time frame from 1981 to 2010 was 52.1 millimeters.
Ulsan in the past month also had meager rainfall of 15.3 millimeters, a 72 percent decrease from last years 55 millimeters.
Weather authorities issued dry air alerts in places like Daegu and Pohang for five consecutive days since Wednesday. Dry air warnings are given when effective humidity is less than 25 percent for at least two days.
On Saturday, Seoul saw a high of 23.8 degrees Celsius (74.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and in Daegu it was 26.9 degrees Celsius.
And because there were so many fires, there was a shortage of fire extinguishing helicopters, leading to delays in the fire being put out. The mountain fires were contained by yesterday afternoon.
The Ministry of Public Administration and Security stated yesterday it would provide 2 billion won ($1.8 million) in aid for Pohang and Ulju County in Ulsan to recuperate from the fires.