Thousands battle forest fire in Sichuan that killed 18 firefighters and a local guide

Phoebe Zhang

Eighteen firefighters and a local guide have died in a forest fire that started on Monday afternoon in a mountainous part of Sichuan province in southwest China, Xinhua reported on Tuesday.

Local plantation staff had led the firefighters, who were from a brigade in Ningnan county, to the scene in Xichang, Liangshan prefecture, at 1am on Tuesday.

The wind shifted and the firefighters and staff were surrounded by the fire, the report said. Three people were rescued but 19 people died.

The fire was still burning on Tuesday afternoon. Xichang has deployed 2,044 firefighters and volunteers and evacuated more than 1,200 members of the public. Four helicopters, 142 fire trucks, 64 emergency trucks and one satellite have also been deployed to fight the fire and gather information. The local police have closed roads in Xichang since 7am on Tuesday.

Firefighters gather to fight the blaze that destroyed an estimated 80 hectares of forest and came close to Xichang in Sichuan province. Photo: EPA-EFE

The forest fire started around 3pm on Monday at the Daying Farm and grew to cover 1,000 hectares by midnight because of strong winds. It destroyed an estimated 80 hectares of forest and came close to Xichang, threatening the safety of a storage station with 250 tonnes of petroleum, two petrol stations, four schools and Xichang’s biggest warehouse facility, the local government said on Tuesday.

According to People’s Daily, the fire spread to the walls of several warehouses in Xichang. Firefighters soaked haystacks with water and felled pine trees in the warehouse yards to keep the fire at bay.

Another part of the fire continues to move towards an agricultural school in Xichang. Smoke could still be seen in the city on Tuesday afternoon, blocking the sun.

The forest fire in Xichang started around 3pm on Monday at the Daying Farm and was covering 1,000 hectares by midnight. Photo: EPA-EFE

The fire happened close to the one-year anniversary of another forest fire in Liangshan, which took the lives of 27 firefighters and three local volunteers in 2019. That fire was started by a lightning strike on a tree.

In that case, the firefighters and volunteers had also been on the way to the scene when the wind shifted and fire surrounded them. The local government declared April 4, 2019 a day of mourning, with all public entertainment activities halted and all flags at half-mast. On Friday, a memorial service was held in Muli county on the anniversary of the fire.

It is not yet clear what caused the latest fire in Liangshan, but some have questioned on social media why the prefecture has again had such a devastating forest blaze.

“I hope there is a serious investigation into why this happens every year,” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter. “Don’t just call the firefighters heroes. I want them to be safe.”

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