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Fire on the mountain, Jeju-do, South Korea

17 February 2009 One Comment

Jeju Fire Festival
Fire festival glory | Credit: Mike Laidman

Oreum is set ablaze in annual Jeju Fire Festival
Story by Marcie Miller | Photos by Brian Miller and Mike Laidman

If you’ve ever wanted to be part of a torch-wielding mob, mark your calendar for the 2010 Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival on Jeju, when an entire hillside is set ablaze.

The event is held during the first full moon of the Lunar New Year across Korea. The festival commemorates the practice of burning grassy fields to prepare them for the new growing season. This year’s 14th annual festival on Jeju was Feb. 13 and 14, with the climax hill torching the night of the 14th.

Foreign teachers invited to set off the blaze

Members of the foreign teaching community were among those invited to participate in the torch procession that kicked off the burn, and close to a hundred accepted the offer. After all, it’s not every day you get to be an officially-sanctioned arsonist.

The site of the festival is Saebyeol Oreum (a volcanically-created hill) alongside the 1135 highway, about halfway between Jeju-si and Seogwipo.

Torches at the ready | Photo: Mike Laidman

The hillside facing the highway and festival grounds was prepped for the event with a message laid out in haybales covered with a green tarp, and large sheafs of dry grass dotting the hillside. The lower portion of the hill is the site of half a dozen ancestral grave plots. To protect them from the fire, the burial mounds were covered with tarps, held down by rocks.

The no smoking sign is on

A ball of straw and sticks 10 feet in diameter was festooned with hundreds of white strips of paper holding prayers which would be sent heavenward with the smoke and flames.

After checking out the many festival activities the would-be torch bearers met up and were quickly herded to a roped off section of seating in front of the main stage. On the ground under each plastic lawn chair was a pair of white cotton gloves, and a short bamboo pole topped with a ball of what looked like rolled up athletic socks, soaked in a flammable liquid. The torches.

“Nobody light a match!” was heard, somewhat jokingly, down the line.

After a stage show complete with laser lights, fireworks, scantily clad classical musicians and drums that were alternately doused in water and flames, it was dark enough for the main event: the torching of the oreum.

High winds nearly cancel hill lighting highlight

The first day of this year’s event was canceled due to high winds, but officials deemed it doable in spite of a fairly stiff breeze, and the procession began. The torches were lit by touching one to the other, and with shouted instructions to hold the balls of flame high, a festival organizer led the group across a dark, rocky field to the roped off edge of the oreum. Fireworks rocketed skyward, and the command was given to light the field.

The torches were largely a symbolic gesture, as pyrotechnic charges laid out across the hillside did the real work. Within seconds the entire hillside was ablaze, and torch bearers were told to drop their torches and move back. As the wind carried the heat, smoke and embers toward the crowd, everyone did just that.

From a safe vantage point one could make out the message etched in flames: “no accidents and all in peace”. If the successful burn is indeed a good sign, it looks like Jeju farmers have a good year ahead.

Jeju Fire Festival
Fire festival glory | Credit: Brian Miller

Jeju Fire Festival
The fire begins | Credit: Mike Laidman

Festival video | Credit: Jenie Hahn

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One Comment »

  • Jose I.Diaz said:

    I like to get in touch with the foreign teaching community who are living in Seogwipo. Can get in contact at my E-mail: joseidiaz2004@hotmail.com

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