Hong Kong’s Easter/Ching Ming holiday, at the beginning of April , coincided with a spell of fine, clear weather: conditions that should have been ideal for hiking. But a ridge walk in the northeast of the SAR was spoiled by the sight of smoke rising billowing from a fire raging below the ridge, as well as plumes of smoke and snaking orange lines as more fires burned on other, more distant hills. Elsewhere, too, there were abundant reports of fire on this and the previous day, the Ching Ming Festival proper—when 224 hillfires were recorded throughout Hong Kong.
Every year, Hong Kong’s hillsides are afflicted by fires like these. Overwhelmingly, they rage during the late autumn and winter, when long dry spells can make grass and ferns tinder dry. The Fire Services Department logged 2668 vegetation fires last year, a total almost matched during the exceptionally dry, first four months of this year, which saw 2387. There are a variety of causes, including day-trippers dropping cigarettes or being careless with barbecues. But a disproportionate number result from people observing traditional grave sweeping ceremonies, at Ching Ming in spring and (more usually) Chung Yeung in autumn—roughly a tenth of the hillfires last year and so far this year happened on these days.
Dr Cheng Luk-ki, campaign coordinator of Friends of the Earth, says some of the fires started during grave sweeping ceremonies arise from thoughlessness, as people burn joss sticks and paper money without regard to embers blowing into the undergrowth, and toss firecrackers around (to scare off demons). “But some people also like to clean up the area around the grave, or make sure it’s easy to reach, by lighting fires,” he says.
Seeing the abundant hillfires and their aftermath, often on slopes that have burned over and over—and may have lost so much soil that the ground crunches underfoot, like semi-desert—it’s easy feel that nothing is being done. But there are a few green groups whose members spread messages asking grave visitors to take care, and several government departments have joined forces in a working party on countryside fires. Responsibilities vary within this, with the Agriculture and Fisheries Department overseeing fire prevention in the country parks, which encompass over half of Hong Kong’s countryside.
C. W. Lai, senior country parks officer of the AFD, says that only 18 of the Ching Ming hillfires were in country parks—albeit some were extensive, like the one that eventually burned a great expanse of the Pat Sin Leng range. Though they chiefly affected grassland, rather than destroying trees, he says that, “with repeated burning, we can’t extend woodland as far as we wish, so we hate hillfires.” In an effort to stop people setting light to the hills during Ching Ming, the AFD helped organise publicity through announcements on television and at railway stations and ferry piers, and even through messages blared from helicopters. Department staff and members of the (volunteer based) Civil Aid Service also visited some areas with graves, persuading visitors to take care, and issuing some with metal containers for burning offerings safely. They also grouped in fire-fighting teams, putting out various minor blazes, though at Pat Sin Leng, for instance, the fire raged out of control. “The ridge is too steep,” says Lai. “You can’t fight fires in terrain like that—you might have to climb, then fight it from the top.”
Outside the country parks, fires are the responsibility of the Fire Services Department, which also assumes control of tackling country park fires the AFD can’t handle. Joseph Kwok, chief fire officer (protection), says the FSD similarly tries to prevent hillfires through education, as well as battling them once they start. While acknowledging there may have been far more hillfires outside the country parks than within them because the AFD organises more patrols, Kwok emphasises that, “the people of Hong Kong must play their part in reducing hillfires.”
Cheng of FoE is, however, not convinced the government is doing all it can to tackle the problem. He would like to see measures including enforcement of laws against fire lighting, and more education. Extra enforcement seems unlikely: both Lai and Kwok say it is extremely difficult to prove a certain individual started a blaze. But in the wake of this year’s Ching Ming fires, the government has allocated funds for a new education programme that’s scheduled to begin this autumn (let’s hope this is harder hitting than the stale, anti-hillfire adverts that occasionally run on Hong Kong’s English television channels).
Cheng also suggests that during future grave sweeping ceremonies, teams could visit known blackspots to educate people and catch fire starters. But—indicating how tough the problem is—Lai says this has been tried at Tai O cemetery on Lantau Island. “There were Civil Aid Service members there at Ching Ming, but still, a fire broke out—they couldn’t watch everyone.”
[Written for Action Asia in 1999; the problem remains much the same.]