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Uljin Wildfire In the First Person

Read A First-Hand Account of the Fire That Struck Uljin, Korea

Imagine this, it’s around 11:40 am. You’re sitting at your desk after finishing your last class on Friday. You’re taking a break from lesson planning and are thinking of your next lesson plan when all of a sudden you see smoke from your window.

This smoke is coming from somewhere but you are unsure of where and what started it. Once you head to the school cafeteria for lunch, you can smell it. It’s definitely the smell of smoke and you may have seen some ash coming down from the sky. Turns out, it was a wildfire and all this on the first week back. This was our first day of the new Korean school year.

On March 4, 2022 between 11:10-11:30 a wildfire broke out in Uljin South Korea. At the time, South Korea was in its dry season. Combine that with the coastal winds nearby and, of course the fire grew quickly and the flames spread, almost out of control.

Uljin Wildfire In the First Person 1
Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer

I was there when the smoke covered the sky and turned the skies to an orange color. It was one of the most terrifying experiences I have faced and I wanted to tell my side of the story.

As mentioned in the intro, I was in my classroom when the fires occurred. I went about my day, like it was normal but kept a close eye on the smoke. I continuously checked the various Korean news websites. It wasn’t until around 1:30-1:50pm Korean Standard Time(KST), the fires drew closer to the Bugu area where I teach.

The school decided to cancel the afternoon classes and activities and would eventually send the students home. Many of the students and the staff live in the surrounding area where the smoke blew and the fires were roaring. Some students couldn’t go home yet and had to wait for a parent/guardian to come get them.

We waited with them until about 4:00 pm KST when the last student was picked up by her mother. At that time the sky changed into a dark orange color. The fire department was working as hard as possible. The major concern at the time was the Hanul Nuclear Power plant and the firefighters made a massive attempt to make sure the fires never got close to the power plant. Thankfully they were successful.

Normally, I would catch the bus back home around 4:50pm KST but the afternoon buses had stopped running by that time. I waited for over an hour, thinking that the buses were delayed because of the fire. I eventually was able to catch a taxi back home which was about 2km south from the Bugu area where I work.

Uljin Wildfire In the First Person 2
Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer

Being by the coast, the winds kept pushing the fires in different directions. That night, March 4th, the fires started to make their way north to the city of Samcheok. There was added concern because there is a natural gas plant in the direction the fire was going. Luckily the blazes didn’t make it that far.

Fast forward to that night. The smoke from the Bugu fire was heading south into the downtown area of Uljin where I reside. I had a hard time sleeping that night, understandably due to my concern over the fire possibly making its way to where I live. My main concern was for the students and staff who lived near where the fire began. I woke up the next morning to a strong smell of smoke and was starting to feel light-headed from the fire so I put some apple vinegar and baking soda around my apartment to help absorb the smell which helped a ton.

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Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer

The weather report for March 5th said we would have clear skies. Funny enough, on the south side
of my small apartment, you could look out the window and see clear skies. But to the northern
side, the skies were covered in an orange color and that was covered in gray smoke. You could hear the
helicopters throughout the day, going back and forth from the lakes, carrying water to put out the
fires.

Despite my hesitation I tried hard to stay and I didn’t want to flee. Reluctantly, I decided
to flee and headed to the Uljin Intercity Bus Terminal. As I walked through town, you could
notice the difference in light. The further you went south from the fires, the clearer and brighter the skies were, floating above you.

As you walked across the bridge you could see the fires from the distance covering the mountains. I made my way to the city of Pohang, a larger ship manufacturing city further to the south, for the weekend.

Uljin Wildfire In the First Person 4
Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer
Uljin Wildfire In the First Person 5
Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer

[Photos were taken on March 6th by another native teacher who lives in the apartment complex with The Blerd Explorer. BlackAsiaMagazine received permission to share the photos on social media]

Throughout the day, I kept checking the Korean news sites as they were keeping up to date faster than the Korean English news sites. The fires had decimated numerous small villages, farms and warehouses in the rural areas of Uljin-Gun(county).

Thanks to the strong winds, the firefighters and helicopters that were carrying water, had a hard time putting out the fires. Especially in the high mountains that surround the area. The mountains made their job all the more difficult. South Korea’s geography is mountainous. Everywhere you look in the country there is sure to be a mountain or hill nearby.

While in Pohang I kept in contact with another English teacher who lives in the same apartments as me. For this story we’ll call him…..Chad( yeah I know, not the most creative). Chad was driving around the city to keep tabs on the fires and would send pictures and information to me.

A former Korean teacher I worked with who lived in the Bugu area also had fled and would keep in contact with me asking for any updates. Late into the night in a hotel in Pohang, I really couldn’t sleep as I had learned from Chad that the fire had made it close to where we lived. The fire was on one side of the road, but on the other side was a gas station.

Thankfully, I learned in the morning that the fire was extinguished in that area before it got to the gas station. I also learned from a breaking news story at the time that there may have been a discovery as to the cause of the fire. At the time, it was captured on CCTV that four cars were driving through the area and somebody threw a cigarette out of the car. Because of the winds and it being the dry season, this was the possible cause of the fire.

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Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer
Uljin Wildfire In the First Person 7
Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer

Since I was in Pohang, I needed to distract myself from the fire. The next day, March 6th, I ended
up going to the Pohang Space Walk at Hwanho Lake Park Young Gilda Beach Area. The beach
side and the recently built Space Walk attraction did take my mind off of things and also hearing
the news from Chad, that the fires were secured near my residence did put me in a bit of a
better mood.

I spent the next few hours at Café Green and Butterfly & Creamorous Café, waiting
to catch the intercity bus back to Uljin. I almost fell asleep at Butterfly due to stress and lack of
sleep March 6th. Not even a coffee could keep me awake. Eventually I got home that night and
you could still smell the smoke throughout the town. I think I saw some ash falling as well.

Uljin Wildfire In the First Person 8
Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer
Uljin Wildfire In the First Person 9
Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer
Uljin Wildfire In the First Person 10
Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer
Uljin Wildfire In the First Person 11
Photo Credit: The Blerd Explorer

I decided to take a personal day on Monday cause there was no way I was physically and
mentally ready to teach and I’m sure my students weren’t ready either. To my relief, the school and
possibly the other schools in the area decided not to have class that Monday, March 7th.

The next day, I went back to school and on the way to work, you could see the damage from the
fires. There was so much soot on the ground and covering the trees. You could see all the homes that were destroyed and unfortunately, many of the homes were occupied by the senior population.

Those who were affected by the fire were evacuated to a sports complex and temporarily stayed there
while the fires were being put out. The fires were finally extinguished on March 13, 2022. About
29,923 hectares(7222 acres) of land were destroyed by the fire in Uljin, Samcheok and other
areas of Gangwon Province. Fortunately, no casualties were reported and as of this post. The
various Korean news outlets all seem to agree that the fire was caused by a cigarette.

I’m just glad the situation is over and things have gone back to normal, for the most part. The real
tragedy of the wildfire is how the environment was the true casualty. The region has some wonderful
nature, beautiful scenery and hiking trails with incredible views. Time will tell if the area will ever regain its majesty.

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