Eighteen firefighters and a forestry worker were killed in the early hours of this morning while battling a forest fire in the mountainous Liangshan district of Sichuan, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported today.
The fire started on a local farm on Monday afternoon and, fanned by strong winds, quickly spread to nearby mountains. Around 1,000 firefighters and local militia were dispatched to the scene of the blaze during the day. It is understood that the 19 victims were trapped on the mountainside when the wind suddenly changed direction.
The fire continued to burn out of control on Tuesday as thousands of reinforcements were sent in. Police closed off roads as the fire threatened a petroleum storage facility, two petrol stations, four schools and a major warehouse facility in the nearby prefectural capital of Xichang.
It is almost exactly one year to the day that 30 firefighters were killed in another forest fire in Liangshan. In this tragedy, the firefighters were also trapped on a mountainside when the wind changed direction. There have already been calls on social media in China for a thorough investigation into why history keeps on repeating itself in Liangshan.
One factor could be that China’s firefighters are often young, relatively inexperienced and sometimes lack the equipment they need to fight major fires, as was tragically illustrated in the 2015 Tianjin warehouse fire and explosion that killed 173 people including 104 firefighters.
Moreover, the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture is a relatively poor rural area that was once notorious for sending children to work in the factories of the Pearl River Delta. It is unlikely that the local authorities in Liangshan were able to provide local firefighters with the expert training, equipment and logistic support they needed in such a dangerous working environment.