SEOUL, Jan 20 (Reuters) – A fire swept through part of a slum in the South Korean capital, Seoul, on Friday, destroying 60 homes, many made of cardboard and wood, and forcing the evacuation of around 500 people.
Emergency services took five hours to extinguish the blaze, which broke out before dawn in Guryong Village, a slum located just across a highway in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district. Officials said no casualties have been reported so far.
Home to around 1,000 people, Guryong is one of the capital’s last remaining slums and has become a symbol of inequality in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Ten helicopters and hundreds of firefighters, police and soldiers joined in the effort to put out the blaze, which officials say has leveled nearly one in ten of Guryong’s more than 600 homes.
“I saw a flash of lightning from the kitchen and opened the door, and flames were shooting out from nearby houses,” said Shin, a 72-year-old woman whose home was completely burned down in the inferno.
“So I knocked on all the doors nearby and shouted ‘fire!’ then called 119,” she said, giving only her last name.
Kim Doo-chun, 60, said his family was not affected by the fire, but he told Reuters the village was under constant threat of disaster partly because of its cardboard houses and narrow streets.
“If a fire breaks out in this neighborhood, the whole village could be in danger if we don’t react quickly. So we’ve been acting together for decades,” said Kim, who has lived in the area for 30 years.
The slum has long been prone to fires and floods, and safety and health issues abound.
The government had unveiled plans for redevelopment and relocation after a massive fire in late 2014, but those efforts made little headway amid a decades-long tug of war between landowners, residents and authorities.
Seoul and Gangnam district municipal authorities and public developers are at odds over how to compensate private landowners in Guryong and have yet to agree that residents, most of whom are squatters , are entitled to government assistance for relocation and housing.
Informed of the fire while in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered all possible efforts to avert a bigger disaster, his spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye said.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon visited the still-smoldering village and asked officials to prepare to relocate affected families.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore
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