SEOUL, Jan 20 (Reuters) – A fire tore through a slum in the South Korean capital Seoul on Friday, destroying 60 houses, many made of cardboard and wood, and forcing the evacuation of about 500 people.
It took emergency services five hours to put out the blaze, which broke out before dawn in the village of Guryeong, a poor neighborhood just across a highway from Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district. Authorities said there were no immediate reports of casualties.
Home to about 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 the effort to put out the blaze, which officials said had destroyed nearly one in ten of Guryong’s more than 600 homes.
“I saw a flash from the kitchen and opened the door and flames were shooting from the houses next door,” said Shin, a 72-year-old woman whose home was completely gutted in the inferno.
“So I knocked on every door nearby and yelled ‘fire!’ and then called 119,” she said, giving only her last name.
Kim Doo Chun, 60, said his family was unaffected by the fire, but told Reuters the village was constantly at risk of disaster, partly because of the cardboard houses and narrow streets.
“If a fire breaks out in this neighborhood, the whole village could be in danger if we don’t respond quickly. So we’ve been responding together for decades,” said Kim, who has lived in the area for 30 years.
The slum has long been prone to fire and flooding, and safety and health issues abound.
The government unveiled plans for reconstruction and relocation after the massive fire in late 2014, but those efforts have made little progress amid a decades-long tug-of-war between landowners, residents and authorities.
Civic authorities for Seoul and the Gangnam area and state-owned developers are at odds over how to compensate private landowners in Guryong and have yet to agree on whether residents, most of whom are self-settled, are entitled to government relocation and housing support .
Informed of the fire while in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered all efforts to prevent a bigger disaster, his spokeswoman Kim Yun-hye said.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon visited the still-smoldering village and asked authorities to prepare to relocate the affected families.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Gerry Doyle and Simon Cameron-Moore
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