By Nam Hwa-yeong
When a series of wildfires hit the Canadian province of Quebec earlier this year in the midst of a scorching summer, the Canadian government called to the international community for help. The Korean government responded by dispatching 151 members of the Korea Disaster Relief Team (KDRT) on July 2. Of those, 70 were specialist mountain firefighters from Gangwon Province and North Gyeongsang Province with a wealth of experience from a series of large mountain fires in Korea.
Upon arrival, they were assigned to Lebel-sur-Quevillon, some 510km north of Ottawa, one of the worst-hit regions where residents had been evacuated twice. In the following weeks, Korean firefighters set off from their base camp every morning at 5 a.m. and traveled for two hours to serve alongside their Canadian and American colleagues. Awaiting them were deep swamps and stretches of dry land where it was difficult to see anything as gusts of wind kicked up dust. And yet, they persevered.
Their expertise and experience from large-scale mountain fires in Korea proved to be invaluable. For instance, they made sure to dig all the way down to tree roots, often dozens of meters deep, because they knew from previous experience that, even when all the fire on the surface has been put out, embers in tree roots could easily rekindle.
And those firefighters with nursing and paramedic qualifications doubled up as medical truck operators to aid emergency medical support efforts. This was at the request of U.S. authorities leading field operations, who were deeply impressed by the diverse capabilities and professionalism of Korean firefighters. So for 31 days until their operation came to an end, these Korean firefighters ran a dual mission of firefighting and operating medical trucks, as well as providing first aid to those who were injured during operations.
There was also an incident where the Korean firefighters, while on break at the base camp, saw a local store on fire and immediately responded with fire extinguishers. Fortunately, there were no causalities and local firefighters soon took over. With thanks pouring in from local residents, it provided yet another testament to the Korean firefighters’ capabilities.
In fact, Korea’s International Search and Rescue Team had also carried out a successful mission in Antakya, Turkey, last February when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit the region. The Korean government decided in record time to dispatch the KDRT and sent a team of 118, which was the largest single unit ever to be dispatched to that date. The National Fire Agency’s International Search and Rescue Team had its 62 service members packing their cutting-edge equipment as the first squad of KDRT, along with colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and the Ministry of National Defense. Their mission lasted 10 days, rescuing nine survivors and recovering 19 bodies.
And to put an official seal of approval on all of these achievements, following a five-day assessment from Oct. 2 at the National 119 Rescue Headquarters, the U.N. International Search and Rescue Advisory Group gave KDRT a Heavy Team classification, the highest level it awards, successfully renewing their “heavy” classification for the third time in a row since 2011. The KDRT has thus had its world-class capability duly recognized.
Disasters are no longer confined to a single nation. We’re already witnessing more and more large-scale disasters that cross not just regional boundaries but also international borders. As we mark the 61st Firefighters’ Day in Korea, we hope that our world-renowned firefighters will continue their contributions to global safety, well beyond protecting the lives of our own citizens. Wherever in the world is hit by the next disaster, Korean firefighters will always be ready to serve.
Nam Hwa-yeong is commissioner general of the National Fire Agency.