US helicopter sparks fire during training exercise in South Korea
SEOUL, South Korea — A U.S. helicopter on a training exercise sparked a mountainside fire that raged for nearly 20 hours at Rodriguez Live Fire Range, a military spokesman said.
Nobody was injured, but the blaze charred an area about half the size of a football field, the 2nd Infantry Division said.
The OH-58 Kiowa was firing munitions at the tree-covered mountain while doing gunnery tables when the blaze broke out at 2:50 p.m. on Tuesday.
It quickly spread as helicopters carrying large water buckets to douse the flames were delayed by weather conditions, said spokesman Maj. Vincent Gothard.
Firefighting equipment arrived around midnight, and the flames were fully extinguished by 9:28 a.m., he said, adding that all safety measures were utilized.
The range was put in a cease-fire, and the fire was under constant observation, Gothard said.
The Kiowa Warriors, which are on their last deployment before retirement, will be replaced later this month by Apache attack helicopters on the divided peninsula.
The mountainous, 3,390-acre training complex is considered essential for military exercises to maintain a state of readiness amid high tensions between the Koreas. It will remain operational after most U.S. forces relocate south to an expanded Camp Humphreys.
But many South Koreans living nearby have long complained about noise and expressed environmental concerns.
A protest group, which maintains a tent vigil near the range’s entrance, took photos of the fire.
Lee Kil Yeon, head of the Pocheon Live Fire Range Countermeasure Committee, said the fire underscored the group’s concerns about the safety of nearby houses. He said it also violated the spirit of an agreement made earlier this year in which U.S. Forces Korea promised to act faster to extinguish fires when they break out.
“The forest here is so beautiful,” he said. “It’ll be so frustrating if it is burned to ashes.”
The U.S. has about 28,500 servicemembers in South Korea, which technically remains in a state of war with the North after the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.