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Wildfire quickly spreads to about 21,000 acres as thousands evacuate

A firefighting helicopter dumps water on a hill in the eastern city of Samcheok, Gangwon Province, on March 5, 2022, to put out a wildfire that has ravaged the area since the previous day. (Yonhap)
A firefighting helicopter dumps water on a hill in the eastern city of Samcheok, Gangwon Province, on March 5, 2022, to put out a wildfire that has ravaged the area since the previous day. (Yonhap)
More than 6,000 people have evacuated their homes as firefighters battle a massive wildfire in eastern coastal areas Saturday.

The fire burned an estimated 21,179 acres (8,571 hectares) of woodland in Uljin, about 330 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and its neighboring city of Samcheok as of 1 p.m., according to forest and firefighting authorities.

That is more than double the size of woodland reported to have been affected the previous day.

The blaze began on Friday morning on a road near a mountain in Uljin and spread north to Samcheok in the afternoon, driven by strong winds and dry weather, according to the Korea Forest Service (KFS).

It destroyed at least 153 homes and 53 other structures, but no casualties were reported.

About 6,000 people fled their houses as the fire spread, though all but 673 had returned as of Saturday morning.

The fire once threatened a nuclear power plant, the nation's largest liquefied natural gas production complex, and power transmission lines in the areas, but the firefighters brought the blaze under control before it reached the facilities, officials said.

But as the fire began to spread south again toward villages in Uljin following a switch in the wind direction, some villagers were forced to evacuate to safety.

As of Saturday afternoon, 4,296 firefighters were battling the blaze with 46 helicopters and 273 firetrucks deployed, focusing their efforts on blocking the southward spread of the fire and again on protecting the nuclear, gas and power facilities, according to the authorities.

Firefighters were experiencing difficulties in extinguishing the fire with helicopters due to strong winds of 27 mps and thick smog created by the forest fire.

"Since the area affected is so big, our goal this morning is to overpower the flames moving southward," Choi Byeong-am, chief of the KFS, told reporters. "We aim to bring all flames under control by the sunset," he added.

Wildfires also broke out in two other areas of Gangwon Province -- Gangneung and Yeongwol-- during the day, disrupting traffic on a highway and a railway along the coast.

President Moon Jae-in called for all-out efforts to prevent any casualties and protect key industrial facilities from fires.

"It's fortunate that there were no casualties overnight and core facilities such as Samcheok liquefied natural gas complex and Hanul nuclear power plant remain safe," Moon was quoted by presidential spokesperson Park Kyung-mee as saying after being briefed on the situations. "Please make every effort to prevent casualties and protect core facilities from wildfires and make all-out efforts to extinguish them as early as possible." (Yonhap)

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