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Eastern coast blaze destroys famous Buddhist temple

By Choi Soung-ah, The Korea Herald, April 6, 2005

Yangyang, Gangwong Province (South Korea) -- The raging wildfire in the country's eastern coastal region continued to roar strongly late yesterday swallowing up villages, forests, and even a Buddhist temple while forcing thousands of residents to evacuate their homes, while Koreans elsewhere celebrated the 60th Arbor Day by planting six million trees.

<< A gazebo inside the Naksan Buddhist Temple is in flames yesterday evening as a forest fire which began late Monday night blazed through the wooded areas of Yangyang County, quickly spreading to villages, mountains and tourist areas in the region. [Kim Dong-hoon/The Korea Herald]

The forest fire that began around 11:50 p.m. late Monday night in Yangyang, Gangwon Province, was pushed along throughout the region by strong winds even in its 22nd hour, destroying the 1,300 year-old Naksan Temple, one of the most-renown temples in the country.

The blaze left only two of the 20 ritual halls at the temple in its original form, completely burning down the remaining including the Hall of the Great Veneration where the image of Buddha is enshrined, according to officials. Some 30,000 national treasures are registered to be held at the temple.

So far, no casualties have been reported but officials of Yangyang County said the fire has flared over more than 150 hectares and the scope of the damage could not immediately be determined as the fire is expected to spread further overnight.

All residents of some 15 villages in the area have been forced to abandon their homes to take shelter, an official said.

In the afternoon, President Roh Moo-hyun visited the Central Anti-Disaster Headquarters at the Government Building in downtown Seoul and ordered the government to consider designating Yangyang County as a disaster zone, to make it eligible for government subsidies, tax benefits and other assistance for rehabilitation projects, according to Roh's spokesman Kim Man-soo.

Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan issued an emergency directive to mobilize all equipment to contain the fire, his office said. It said Lee will hold an emergency meeting this evening with ministers of defense, administration and health as well as heads of fire authorities and the police agency.

In its 11th hour, the blaze appeared to be contained and 90 percent of the fire extinguished, but strong winds and dry conditions helped to keep the flames grew to engulf the areas further.

Nearly 6,000 firefighters, police and government officials are on site to control the blaze.

The fire was the largest since May 1980 in Yangyang County, where forests cover 82 percent of the land. Forest fires frequently break out in other counties in mountainous Gangwon Province, which suffers dry spells in early spring.

The Korea Meteorological Administration said the region will likely continue to be spring-like, with temperatures in the upper teens and southwesterly winds. There is zero chance of precipitation throughout midweek, heightening fire concerns.

On Monday, a wildfire crossed over the eastern section of the DMZ in Gosong, the country's furthermost northern border with North Korea, just days after a similar blaze.

South Korean soldiers on the frontline were still struggling to bring the blaze under control yesterday as strong winds fanned flames.

Yonhap news agency said 12 fire trucks and three helicopters were deployed near the southern boundary of the 4-kilometer-wide DMZ to assist the firefighters.

Last Thursday, a fire in the same area moved southward, placing frontline units on alert. The fire, which originated in North Korea, was apparently put out with the help of rain in the area.

More than 8,000 organizations and civic groups elsewhere in the nation planted nearly 6 million trees to mark Arbor Day. Some 410,000 people from some 3,700 towns, 1,000 schools and 1,700 organizations took part in activities organized by the Korea Forest Service to plant trees, officials said.

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