Massive Forest Fire Kills 172, Rages out of Control
BEIJING (AP) _ A forest fire which has killed at least 172 people and left 51,000 homeless raged out of control in northeastern China Wednesday as efforts to contain the week-long blaze continued, official reports said.
Firebreaks were in place along much of the fire’s eastern side in a remote area of Heilongjiang province near the Sino-Soviet border, state-run evening television news said.
The firebreaks protected the city of Tahe, which has a population of 100,000, the broadcast said. The city has been threatened twice before since the fire broke out May 6, the broadcast said.
The fire, which officials suspect was caused by an oil leak from a bush- cutting machine, has blackened 1.35 million acres of land and charred 25.7 million cubic feet of timber worth $35 million, according to a Forestry Ministry official.
It also destroyed 431 tractors and trucks, several bridges and communications facilities worth $74.8 million, an official of the ministry’s fire-fighting headquarters told the government-run news agency Xinhua.
Earlier reports said the fire destroyed three towns, several villages and three railway stations.
The death toll rose to 172 and the number of injured to 300, while 51,000 people were homeless, a spokesman for Heilongjiang province said.
Firebreaks were constructed on the fire’s east side, to the north of Tahe, 425 miles northwest of the Heilongjiang capital of Harbin, the newscast said.
Firebreaks were still being formed in some areas to the west, according to the television broadcast, which showed footage of rows of burned-out buildings and firefighters battling the yellow flames on hillsides.
Some areas of the Daxingganglin Mountains, where the fire was blazing, have had light snowfall, the report said. The fire has spread in some areas and weakened in others and was moving in the direction of the winds, it said.
It said an additional 10,200 people were sent Wednesday to fight the fire in the county of Mohe, in the northeastern tip of Heilongjiang province.
Vice Premier Li Peng flew to the town of Mohe for an inspection tour Wednesday and thanked members of the armed forces who had battled the fire and shared supplies with local residents, Xinhua reported.
Xinhua said most of the buildings had burned down and 11 office buildings that survived had been turned into temporary shelters for the homeless.
″The fire is still spreading in some areas, and more soldiers and civilians will be mobilized in the next few days,″ Xinhua said.
Li said Tuesday that the fire was the biggest in China since the Communists took power in 1949.
Firefighters were being parachuted in to cut firebreaks and soldiers and civilians were clearing away debris to prevent the fires from being rekindled, the English-language China Daily reported.
It said 10,000 people had been evacuated to Inner Mongolia and to other areas of Heilongjiang, and another 10,000 were waiting to be moved.
Xinhua said eight provinces and 10 cities had sent aid to fire victims, including 600 tons of grain, 400 tons of instant food, 70 prefabricated houses, 560 tents, medical supplies and other daily necessities.
Jilin and Henan provinces and Beijing have sent planes to drop food and medicine and transport the injured, Xinhua said.
Campaigns to donate clothing, other supplies and money have been launched in 10 cities, the news agency said.