Eighteen firefighters and a forest guide died this week battling a wildfire in southwest China that has spread over more than 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres), prompting criticism on social media that the government isn’t doing enough to protect the lives of emergency workers.
The disaster has destroyed more than 80 hectares of forest in Sichuan, the same region where a fire sparked by a thunderstorm a year ago killed 27 firefighters. Government officials say the cause of the current fire is still under investigation, but “abnormal weather conditions” helped the blaze to spread and hampered rescue work. The wildfire spread within an hour over the mountain where it started and threatened the nearby city Xichang, which has a population of over 770,000.
Data from the Meteorological Center in Xichang shows the region experienced a drier, warmer spring than usual, with no rain in more than 20 days. With strong winds and an abundance of “combustible material” in the forest, the combination created ideal conditions for wildfires, said meteorologist Hu Xiao at the China Meteorological Administration. There were at least 56 forest fires in China within a week in late March, according to China’s Ministry of Emergency Management.
While 97% of wildfires in China are started as a result of human activities, the increasing frequency and damage has been blamed on climate change. In a 10-year guideline for fire prevention published in 2016, China’s forest bureau said the country is facing a “severe situation” as an increasing area is affected by extreme weather events and drought, brought on by global warming. Last September, China recorded 163 forest and grassland fires, the highest number since 2007.
It’s part of a global surge in wildfires around the world in the past year — from Brazil to Borneo and from the Arctic Circle to Australia — that has consumed millions of hectares of forest and grassland and released billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Long-term warming trends have boosted the chances of Australia experiencing extreme fire weather like this year’s by at least 30%, according to a report by the World Weather Attribution group.
The task of controlling wildfires is being made harder as China pursues a huge reforestation program designed to block the expansion of deserts and reduce carbon emissions. The Asian nation has planted billions of trees over the past four decades, reviving the forest cover to above 22% in 2019 from 12% in 1981, according to Forestry Ministry.
“China has entered a period with high fire risk as the forest size grows,” China’s forest bureau warned in its latest 10-year guidelines. “China’s forest is not in good quality and has a weak ability to resist wildfire.”
China is beefing up wildfire prevention measures in preparation for this weekend’s Tomb Sweeping Holiday, when tens of millions of people normally travel to their hometowns to visit the graves of their ancestors and burn incense and paper offerings. While the coronavirus and travel restrictions are expected to reduce the numbers this year, the dry weather has increased the risk of new fires.
China invested heavily in its ability to fight wildfires after 1987, when a blaze got out of control in the forests of Heilongjiang province in the northeast, burning over a million hectares and damaging 50,000 homes. The wildfire killed more than 200 people, and it took a month for 58,000 soldiers, police and volunteers to extinguish the flames. The head of China’s forestry ministry was one of more than a dozen officials who were sacked at the time. Since then, the number of registered firefighters in the country has risen to 616,000, from about 10,000, and the number of annual fires has dropped by 55%.
Even so, government data showed that Chinese firefighters were almost four times as likely to be killed doing their job in 2015 as their counterparts in the U.S., and the latest fatal blaze in Sichuan has prompted questions on social media about why the death toll is so high and why government officials aren’t being held responsible.
One person wrote on Weibo: “As weather get drier and temperatures rise, it’s difficult to stop forest fires, but we have to try to stop sacrificing people’s lives.”
–With assistance from Karoline Kan.
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