KOREA – If there is a lesson to be learned from Australia’s horrendous bushfires, it is that a bushfire, once combined with enough fuel, wind and oxygen, can become humanly unstoppable.
And a disaster similar to that in Australia, which since June 2019 has burnt almost 19 million hectares of forest in the southeastern states, killed about 1 billion wild animals and more than 30 people and displaced 100,000 residents, can also happen in Korea, according to local experts. The country’s uneven and mountainous terrain and the worldwide climate change can trigger “major” bushfires ― a disaster category for a fire that burns 100 hectares or more.
Korea’s state forest researchers believe that because mountain forests make up 64 percent of the country’s land, forests are mostly near human habitats, and increasingly hotter air due to the climate change can start fires more easily.
And really, the country would have been helpless in front of the Australian bushfires which destroyed an area almost three times as large as the entire Korean forest region, according to the Korea Forest Service.
“Because our land is small and citizens’ living spaces are close to forests, people have suffered from bushfires many times,” Youn Ho-joong, director-general of the forest conservation department of the National Institute of Forest Science (NIFOS) under the forest service, told The Korea Times.
“And most of our trees were artificially planted to replace destroyed forests (from the 1972 national afforestation project following hundreds of years of stripping mountains of trees in search of energy and food) and haven’t grown mature yet.”
A hotter, dryer atmosphere with low humidity resulting from global climate change increases the risk of disaster.
In the 1900s, the number of days when bushfires occurred in Korea had averaged 109 a year, according to the NIFOS. In the 2000s, the figure jumped to 126 days. The institute believes this could be due to climate change.
According to the institute’s local bushfire risk forecast using its climate change-based scenario HAPPI (Half a degree Additional warming, Prognosis and Projected Impacts), the disaster risk has increased in the past 40 years. The findings also showed that whenever the country’s temperature increased by 1.5 degree Celsius, bushfire frequency and intensity increase as well.
“Because days of bushfire breakout increased to 126 days, the forest service has asked our institute whether to extend the country’s official bushfire warning period by 17 days,” Youn said. The period, officially set due to seasonal climate conditions, begins near spring in February. If extended, it will last until June instead of May.
“That is an incredible administrative pressure on local jurisdictions nationwide because it will enforce additional around-the-clock work duties to related personnel,” Youn said. “That’s a financial burden to the central government as well.”
Climate change affects more than just bushfires; the causal relation also works reciprocally, creating a chain reaction. The NIFOS found that each hectare of burning forest emits 54 tons of carbon emission ― equivalent to the yearly emission from seven cars ― which is a major contributor to global warming.
“We are considering expanding our institute’s bushfire prevention department to a separate bureau because we anticipate the disasters will occur more often,” Youn said.
Throughout the past decade, Korea each year has had more than 430 bushfires on average. The figure in the past three years jumped to 526. During the decade, almost 30 times the area of Yeouido (290 hectares) burned.
The largest bushfire in the country’s history came in April 2000, when 23,794 hectares ― the size of 35,000 football fields ― near five east coastal cities in Gangwon Province, including Gangneung, Donghae and Samcheok, were ablaze for eight days. Winds reached 23 meters per second, 850 residents lost their homes and damage totaled 36 billion won ($29.7 million).
The same region in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Gangwon’s Goseong County in 1996, and South Chungcheong Province’s Cheongyang and Yesan Counties in 2002 also saw major bushfires that each burned from 1,000 to 3,800 hectares. The fires all occurred during the warning period.
The NIFOS analysis report released in 2019 said the threats of major bushfire “have grown year after year recently.” It added that the fires were mostly human errors and rarely caused by natural occurrences like lightening, friction or fermentation.
Stopping fires early
With the country’s relatively small area, concentrated population and thick density of mountain forest over 6.4 million hectares, bushfires in Korea must be contained early before they spread and cause irreversible damage. Youn likened the disaster to the rampant coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) here ― once spread to so many victims, it runs out of control.
And in Korean forests, of which 41 percent are needle leaf trees ― mostly pines ― that are vulnerable to bushfire, crown fires can easily occur; this most lethal category of bushfire can consume a series of entire tree tops.
Korea has developed strong mechanical arrangement for early containment, from technical hardware at the forefront of battlefields to smart forecast technologies in control towers and on the ground.
The main and indispensable means are helicopters, which are first sent to every major bushfire with thousands of liters of extinguisher before ground units can approach. This has been the basic counter-bushfire strategy ― catching crown fires with helicopters and leaving the rest to ground forces.
As of February 2020, there are 167 firefighting helicopters. The forest service owns 49, while the National Fire Agency runs 28, the Ministry of National Defense 20, with the rest operated by the National Police Agency, national parks and local governments. The helicopters are kept in 12 cities and counties.
The most destructive and expensive units are S-64, made by America’s Erickson and carrying up to 8,000 liters of extinguisher. The forest service owns six and bought two more ― each worth 27 billion won ($22.2 million) ― in February this year and stationed them in the east coastal region, where the bushfire threat is greatest.
The forest service also has 30 Russian KumAPE KA-32 helicopters with 3,000-liter capacity, which are the agency’s main firefighting units.
Helicopters do more than drop water-mixed foaming agents that lower the temperature and cut off oxygen ― they also act as mobile control towers. Their heat-sensing detectors can locate fires, and an aerial view from the choppers’ built-in cameras can be simultaneously shared by the forest service, the NIFOS and the presidential office.
The latest addition to the flying squadron are heat-sensing drones, which can monitor a bushfire at night. With power-cable attached, they can stay afloat effortlessly and, with a hose hooked up, can also extinguish small fires.
The forest service is now developing a “bomber-drone,” which, with heat-sensing vision, can carry extinguishing bombs weighing 30 kilograms. The agency has also designated nationwide 4,000 water reserves equipped with an anti-freezing facility to supply extinguisher for helicopters, even in winter.
Under the sky, about 20,000 personnel across the country plus 330 recently appointed special counter-bushfire squad members monitor signs of bushfire with ample mechanical support. They can climb up to two kilometers up mountains with a motor-pump hose or carrying a pump on their back.
“One of the difficulties for ground units is that, because fires can last more than a day, the firefighters must search for remaining fires or smoke,” said Youn. The job means a meticulous search for hidden signs of fire inside trees or underneath layers of fallen leaves.
Fire trucks may be the largest ground units but because they cannot enter mountains they usually just supply water to much smaller one-ton bushfire trucks. These carry up to 80 liters of water and can access topsy-turvy mountain roads.
After a 2005 bushfire in Yangyang, Gangwon, which burned historical Naksansa Buddhist Temple and 973 hectares of nearby forest, the country beefed up unmanned counter-bushfire facilities around national heritage sites and houses near mountains.
Water cannon, spraying from 25 meters above ground, were built inside the temple and other locations, while venues and forests were kept apart by 50 meters.
Sixty-five kilometers of new forest roads were built to give bushfire trucks’ better access to bushfires, while the width of existing 100 kilometer-long forest roads was extended from three to five meters.
The NIFOS also forecasts bushfire possibilities in cities and counties across the country based on local climate conditions like wind speed, temperature and humidity. Real-time big data is transferred to digitized maps of the country at the institute’s control room where decisions are made.
The control room can also check the real-time locations of helicopters and their birds’ eye views. Bushfire risk levels in rural counties due to trash incineration ― one of the minor causes of local bushfires because wind can carry sparks from the burning ― can also bring warnings, depending on conditions.
Bushfire has also been studied at a NIFOS lab in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, since 2018, to see how varying climate conditions can cause bushfires. Youn said a larger lab was being built this year.
To better prepare for disaster, the forest service in August 2018 introduced another command tower centered in the country’s hottest epicenter region.
The East Coastal Forest Fire Center in Gangwon’s Gangneung is the country’s first large-scale bushfire prevention center under local jurisdictions. With combined experts from forestry, firefighting, police, meteorology and the local government offices, the facility is responsible for the region, where 32 of 49 overall major bushfires from 1991 to 2019 occurred.
Nowhere in the country has more types of wind than the east coastal region also known as Yeongdong ― winds descending from the Taebaek Mountains, winds from the East Sea, the country’s most dominant southwesterly wind and mountain valley winds, all of which trigger bushfire. Taebaek also mostly consists of needle leaf trees. The region, according to experts, has all the possible triggers for a bushfire.
“Unlike other countries, there are no naturally caused bushfires in Korea,” Youn said. “So we consider bushfires manmade disasters rather than part of a natural cycle, as some argue. It’s why we must tackle them.”