Updated at 10:15 a.m. EST on 2012-04-09
A fire sparked by illegal hunters has been raging across forests in eastern Tibet for nearly a month, causing a severe environmental crisis and displacement of people, according to government officials and local residents.
Chinese authorities who downplayed the disaster in the early stage are pouring more resources into containing the raging flames but to no avail, issuing an emergency decree and calling for joint operations involving the military, police, and civilians.
The fire began on March 10 in the forests in Markham (in Chinese, Mangkang) county in Chamdo (Changdu) prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and has spread to neighboring Gonjo (Gongjue), Dragyab (Chaya), and Chamdo (Changdu) counties.
"The fire is too big and so intense, it is not proving to be an easy task," a Chinese forestry department official in Markham County told RFA.
“We are providing all the necessary equipment to the people who are putting out the fire."
Details on the extent of damage as well as the number of people displaced are not immediately available.
At the scene
Officials from the TAR are at the scene guiding the fire extinguishing operations, which also involve the People's Liberation Army, the People’s Armed Police, and local cadets.
The fire began at the Chakson Tan village in Markham county's Lungra township, local Tibetans said.
Local authorities initially forced residents to join in the firefighting effort, warning that those who refused to comply with the order would be fined. But civilians could do little to battle the flames.
"The fire is so intense, it is humanly not possible to approach the site where it is raging. The entire area is engulfed," a local Tibetan said.
"The local people are unable to approach the site of the fire, let alone put it out."
The government also seemed helpless at the start.
"The Chinese government dispatched four fire trucks from Chamdo, but the forests that caught fire were on the mountains, so there was an accessibility issue as the trucks could not reach the fire. They, too, were helpless," said another Tibetan in the affected area.
The Tibetan, who is a nomad, said the authorities did not heed the early warning by the people to act promptly.
“We brought it to the attention of the local Chinese authorities. We categorically stated the dire consequences of the fire and its possibility of spreading to other areas owing to the dry [weather]," he said.
“The Chinese local officials didn’t pay heed to our initial alert. Now entire areas have been burned down, and the Chinese are waking up too late to send in more military and police forces. What good will it do now?"
Chen Quanguo, secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the TAR, issued a seven-point decree on April 1, calling for an emergency firefighting operation.
“The [aforementioned] fires have done irreparable damage to the natural forest of the nation. An emergency fire rescue operation should be carried out in full force with the concerted effort of the Chinese military, People’s Armed Police, Police, local cadets and civilians to bring an end to the fire,” read the decree.
"At the same time, no effort should be lost in maintaining social order and stability," it said, cautioning that "separatists forces might likely use this incident to carry out separatists’ activities by spreading rumors and exaggerating [the problem]."
When RFA inquired about the cause of the forest fire, Markham county's deputy director of police, identified only as Wang, said it was ignited by a group of illegal hunters.
Four suspects—three Chinese nationals and a Tibetan—have been detained over the incident, he said, adding that efforts were under way to determine whether others were involved .
Reported by Lobsang Choephel for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translated by Dorjee Damdul and Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.