Moon designates wildfire-hit eastern region as special disaster zone

SEOUL-- President Moon Jae-in on Sunday designated the eastern coastal area that has been ravaged by a massive wildfire as a special disaster zone, and vowed swift government support for the victims, his office said.

The move came hours after Moon met with displaced people at a makeshift shelter in Uljin, 330 kilometers southeast of Seoul, as authorities mobilized 44 helicopters and 4,000 personnel to contain the blaze that began Friday.

"The fastest way for the government to support the residents is to declare a special disaster zone and to take part in recovery efforts," Moon told the victims.

Among some 7,400 people who evacuated due to the fire, 1,000 are staying in temporary shelters set up at public facilities and schools in the area, officials said.

The fire burned an estimated 14,222 hectares of woodland -- more than twice the size of Manhattan -- in Uljin and its neighboring city of Samcheok as of 11 a.m., driven by strong winds and dry weather, according to forest and firefighting authorities.

Authorities launched a preliminary investigation into the cause of the fire, and are eyeing a cigarette as a possible cause of the blaze.

"For now, extinguishing the fire is most important," a forestry official said. "We will launch a full-fledged probe led by experts once the fire is fully put out."

Some large conglomerates rushed to provide relief aid to displaced residents in Uljin and Samcheok areas.

Samsung Group said it plans to donate 3 billion won (US$2.4 million) to the Korea Disaster Relief Association, as well as supplies that include daily necessities.

Hyundai Motor Group donated 5 billion won and provided daily necessities such as mineral water, and instant noodles, or "ramyeon" and four vehicles built for laundry services to the affected areas.

Meanwhile, a court in the eastern coastal city of Gangneung issued an arrest warrant against a 60-year-old man on charges of starting a separate fire in the city, about 240 kilometers east of Seoul, and its neighboring areas the previous day.

The suspect, who allegedly started the fire using a hand torch, said he did so because he was "disrespected" by local residents for years, according to the police.

The fire has so far burned 1,850 hectares of woodland along with tens of buildings. Firefighters have not yet put the fire under control.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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