BEIJING: Over the weekend, 700 firefighters were deployed on a mission to battle a forest fire raging out of control in sparsely populated Muli county in China’s southwestern Sichuan province.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang had issued orders to respond immediately to the emergency, after the blaze spiraled out of hand despite initial efforts to contain it.
China’s Ministry of Emergency Management had been closely monitoring forest fires as they had declared an orange alert, the second highest alert level, for large parts of northern China due to droughts, strong winds and high temperatures, starting mid-March.
In recent weeks, forest fires had flared up in Qingyan, Shanxi province, as well as on the outskirts of Beijing. So in a way, the forest fire in Sichuan came as no surprise.
Nevertheless, the harsh terrain in Muli county posed fresh challenges for emergency workers placed on the scene. Amid brave battles to put out raging fires that had destroyed 3,000 hectares of forest by Sunday (Mar 31), firefighters had to endure high altitudes at 4,000 metres above sea levels and steep trail.
One wrong step and they were doomed. But as true heroes, they refused to walk away.
And for two days, they worked hard to contain the forest fire, but a sudden change in wind direction ignited a huge fireball, killing 30 people in the maelstrom. The news was devastating for their families.
Many lives will forever be changed. But could this tragedy have been avoided?
INVESTIGATING THE FIERY AFTERMATH
Beijing has already announced an investigation into the causes behind the calamity in order to learn lessons and improve training procedures, after dispatching two military helicopters for search and recovery.
This spate of forest fires that hit China was one of the worst in recent years. The investigators will take a closer look at how the huge fireball erupted. Once complete, that could provide some insights.
Reports about the change in wind direction taking the crew by surprise have meanwhile gotten many wondering if firefighters had been sufficiently trained to look out for potential signs that the fire was getting out of hand, including recognising changes in the wind direction or tell-tale signs of an impending fireball.
After this terrible mishap, no doubt there is national appetite to invest more to ramp up firefighters’ preparedness, prevention planning and effective fire suppression tools, and upgrade equipment, refresh plans and review training programmes.
The series of unfortunate events has also sparked concerns that small incidents can spark off huge fires and calls for public education, as it has recently come to light that the fire might have been started by villagers who were burning grass and leaves after clearing their drains.
And as the annual grave-sweeping festival Qing Ming approaches on Friday, there have also been public service announcements to remind people to take extra care.
NATIONAL AIR RESCUE SYSTEM COMING SOON
Following the weekend, changes are afoot to provide more support for firefighters. The Chinese Ministry of Emergency Management is working on a nationwide plan to develop a comprehensive air rescue system and boost China's fire-fighting capabilities.
Although 30 fire engines and six helicopters were dispatched to the area to combat the blaze, they were overwhelmed by massive changes in the wind direction, which reached speeds of 62 km/h.
The Forest Fire Control Bureau, the arm of the ministry charged with dispatching responders to put out such blazes, and its 47 local offices across China only has 18 helicopters.
Newly announced plans have thus called for the purchase of more aircraft to tackle fires faster and at scale, improving intelligence collection information for more effective responses, quicker marshalling of resources in a first response, as well as better fire control methods including aerial spraying.
“We are researching the establishment of national air rescue by integrating resources from various sectors and also enhancing support for the system,” Yan Peng, deputy head of the Forest Fire Control Bureau, told China Daily.
I believe air rescue forces will be more widely applied in both forest fires control and other emergency rescue tasks and play a more important role.
THE WORLD'S LARGEST AMPHIBIOUS PLANES, FIRE-FIGHTING TANKS
China is also ramping up on developing aircraft that can aid in emergency rescue and fire-fighting.
News outlets have reported that the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) has already begun flight tests of four AG 600 amphibious airplanes, the world’s largest, which can carry 50 people and aid in fire-fighting and search-and-rescue operations on land and at sea.
The AVIC has completed one maiden test flight of the AG 600 and will be prioritising more to optimise the aircraft’s design, meet regulatory standards on airworthiness and train pilots.
China North Industries Group Corporation, China’s land arms manufacturer, has also rolled out a series of fire-fighting tanks, which can protect crew members from scotching temperatures, fires, explosions, building collapses and cross obstacles half a metre high. These are also equipped with a water canon with a 65m reach and a secondary water gun that can reach closer fires, as well as fireproof coating.
At least 28 are in service across Shandong, Shaanxi and Shanxi and Hunan provinces, and can certainly help deal with huge fire emergencies.
FROM THE ASHES, A NEW DAWN ARRIVES
Although firefighters had died under tragic circumstances in Muji county, the unfortunate accident has a silver lining where it has given Beijing cause to review its fire-fighting capabilities.
Chinese emergency management authorities should accelerate plans to provide stronger support for these brave firefighters who risk life and limb to curb these fires.
There is added imperative with global warming and climate change, as more parts of China have been hit with dry seasons and higher temperatures in recent years. Scorched land, blustery winds and warm environments can be a potent mix that sparks another forest fire.
It’s also worth investing in public education and prevention, since the cause of this recent fire were villagers. In the 1980s, the US raised public awareness on forest fires by creating a cartoon mascot Smokey the Bear and his famous slogan:
Only you can prevent forest fires.
Those are useful words for China at this very moment, as the country pays homage to the fallen heroes who gave their lives to put out the blaze.
Tom McGregor is a commentator on Asia-Pacific affairs based in Beijing.