During fire season, the Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department fire crews take the goal of detecting and combatting hill fires within country parks so seriously, they remain on duty around the clock.
Amid dry weather, there is a high risk of hill fires, especially during fire season between October and April. This is when the department’s fire crews work continuously to ensure they can quickly respond to and douse hill fires that break out in country parks.
The fire crews consist of artisans, workmen, and field assistants. Their usual responsibilities in country parks include tasks like planting trees, repairing bridges, paving roads and collecting garbage.
However, during hill fire season, they transform themselves into fire-fighting warriors. Armed with backpack water pumps and fire beaters, they battle hill fires with intelligence and strength.
Lo Tsz-lung, who has worked for the Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department as a field assistant for over seven years, is one of the fire crew members stationed at the Tai Lam Country Park Twisk Management Centre.
One of his most unforgettable experiences was battling a fire on a mountain for 12 hours. Equipped with fire beaters, backpack water pumps, food and tools, the crew stayed on the mountain overnight, constantly traversing the hills, chasing and beating the fire with determination.
He described the fires they encounter as being far from simple as some reach heights of five or six feet, making approach difficult. Sometimes, they have to adopt a defensive approach, beating the fire to prevent its spread.
Fighting hill fires requires physical strength, skill, and courage. Each fire crew, consisting of six members, is divided into two teams of three. One team member first shoots water from the bottom of the fire source using the backpack water pumps and the other two then rhythmically put out the flames with the beaters, creating a barrier between the air and the fire. This co-ordinated effort accelerates their ability to extinguish the fire.
Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department Senior Field Assistant Cheung Wing-keung, who has been protecting Hong Kong’s country parks for over 30 years, shows no fear when facing raging fires. In fact, he finds a deep sense of fulfilment when conquering fires.
He recalled fighting a massive wildfire in Tai Mo Shan in 2000. The extensive fire had spread from east to west. As his colleagues in the east reported progress that the fire was under control, those in the west intensified their efforts until the fire was finally extinguished.
“It was truly fulfilling,” Mr Cheung said.
Once the fire they are battling is extinguished, fire crews carry out follow-up work promptly. They must remain on-site for a while to ensure no remaining embers are left unattended and search for potential fire reignitions.
If a fire occurs on a hiking trail, they immediately clear it to provide a safe passage for hikers and remove burned trees that pose a danger.
Mr Cheung expressed sadness while recounting his experience of seeing mountains once covered in green vegetation reduced to ashes as a result of ruthless hill fires.
“After suppressing hill fires, the sight of the aftermath is disheartening. In the country parks, we have planted numerous trees on these mountains, all of which were swiftly burned. We must replant the trees, but it takes years for them to grow to a considerable height. Seeing them burn all at once is truly regrettable.”
In addition to patrolling and responding to fire reports from the public, the department has installed an artificial intelligence surveillance system at the Tin Fu Tsai Fire Lookout. The system operates 24 hours a day in an effort to detect hill fires.
Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department Fire Protection Officer Chow Yau-shing pointed out that the hill fire detector, with a detection range of approximately 5km, is used to identify hill fires near Tai Lam Country Park. Once a fire is detected, the Fire Control Centre is immediately notified, enabling the department to dispatch fire crews promptly.
The department stressed that preventing such fires requires the help of citizens.
Apart from pointing out that the majority of hill fires in the countryside are caused by human negligence, it reminds grave sweepers and country park visitors to exercise caution during the Chung Yeung Festival.
It is an offence under the Forests & Countryside Ordinance to leave behind kindling or burn offerings without considering fire risks in the countryside. Any person who contravenes the ordinance may be prosecuted and is liable to a maximum fine of $25,000 and one year of imprisonment upon conviction.
The department added that its staff will step up patrols at graveyards in the countryside during the Chung Yeung Festival period and take enforcement action should any irregularities be detected.