Walking into the real jungle (not concrete one) on a sunny, breezy day feels wonderful, but it can also put you at risk if you are too absorbed in scenic nature. Tantalizing as it is, staying alert is not to be forgotten. Although hiking is conducive to health, it can also be dangerous to life – hill fire being one of the most common threats to hikers and Mother Nature alike.
A single spark can burn a forest
Wildfire spreads rapidly by wind and burns everything it touches to the ground. To avoid hill fire, the first thing to bear in mind is never to smoke in the wilderness – cigarette butts and ashes all too easily set the grass ablaze. In 1996, Hong Kong’s most notorious hill fire ever occurred in Pat Sin Leng, where two teachers and three students died while on a school picnic. An official post-disaster view found that the blaze was very likely caused by students smoking.
Dryness fuels a fire
Hong Kong’s autumn is mild and dry where the countryside is prone to bushfire. Before hitting on trails, remember to note the “Fire Danger Warning” of the day issued by the Hong Kong Observatory, a signal to classify the risk of hill fire into two levels – yellow and red (being the highest) – based on weather conditions. Other than online checking, warning boards are also mounted at the main entrances to country parks.
Wildfire due to negligence
Reports of hill fire are most frequent during Ching Ming and Chong Yeung Festivals (a.k.a. Double Ninth Festival) when tomb sweepers burn incense and paper offerings next to their ancestors’ hillside tombs. Having countryside barbeque without entirely extinguishing the flame before leaving is to blame for it too, so is burning weed or rubbish by hill villagers.
In case of hill fire, what to do?
If, unfortunately, you smell the smoke or, worse, actually encounter a hill fire, keep calm to make sound judgment: take note of which way the fire spreads and then go the opposite laterally. Don’t walk into bush or go up hill. Try to cover up your body with wet clothing. Call the police after escaping to a safer place. Any well-signed track in the city will see a distance post every 500 metres apart, written with distance post number and grid coordinates. Tell the numbers to the rescue team so they can locate you easily. Even if where you are has no network coverage or your mobile has no SIM card, you are still able to dial up emergency call “999” or “112”.
Recent cases of severe hill fire in Hong Kong
2017 January – Sha Tin Siu Lek Yuen
A fire blazed brightly on a hill up Siu Lek Yuen, covering a burning area of several hundred square metres, and at one time spread close to Shui Chuen O Estate, Kwong Yuen Estate, Tate’s Cairn Tunnel Entrance and nearby villages. It took more than two days to put out the fire in a collaborative effort between firefighters and the Government Flying Service. Luckily, no casualties were found.
2017 January – Fo Tan Wong Chuk Yeung
Fanned by the wind, the fire developed quickly and spread close to power towers, fortunately not so close to residence. The 13-hour blaze ravaged 40,000 square metres of countryside.