It was mid-afternoon on a bright autumn day in Yuen Long. Hundreds of villagers were out in the rolling hills celebrating Chung Yeung Festival, marking the ninth day of the ninth moon. The holiday mood last November had brought villagers out to trek through the bush to remote family burial sites as they paid respects to their ancestors.
Embers from the traditional burning of offerings flew into the dry bush, sparking dozens of spot fires that suddenly spread into an uncontrollable blaze. Shocked that it all happened so suddenly, the villagers fled. Some were lucky to escape with their lives. But parts of the countryside were charred.
A few days later Friends of the Earth Hong Kong acting director Edwin Lau Che-feng found himself inspecting the ground where months earlier he and 600 other volunteers had planted seedlings. All that remained were occasional blackened stubs of saplings.
'I remember first seeing the smoke, big black smoke,' Mr Lau said. 'It burned for two days and two nights. It was a tragedy for nature - and it was the result of someone's carelessness.'
Twice a year, during spring's Ching Ming and autumn's Chung Yeung festivals, the lush hills of the New Territories become vulnerable to fires accidentally started during the graveside rituals.
'Hong Kong does not have the type of natural hill fires that Australia or Canada suffers from,' Mr Lau said. 'Hill fires in Hong Kong are absolutely preventable. We humans create the problem, so humans have to be the solution. Everyone has to be conscious of this and have a caring heart for nature.'
This year's Ching Ming festival is next Thursday and with relatively fewer fires in recent years, conservationists are worried that a combination of long grass, dry weather and strong winds do not bode well.
To fight the menace of hill fires, hundreds of people are in a push to educate, patrol and, if all else fails, help fight fires in the worst affected areas.
Government departments and emergency services workers are preparing a campaign against hill fires, starting with broadcasts on television and radio to raise public awareness of fire safety.
As part of the push, the Home Affairs Department has mobilised its 18 District Fire Safety Committees to erect banners and distribute leaflets. They have been contacting district councillors, rural committees and village representatives in the hope they will raise public awareness of the dangers of hill fires. On Ching Ming, there will be 400 Fire Service officers patrolling 65 hill fire black spots around Hong Kong.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) has joined the effort, deploying 150 park wardens and about 60 officers in country park areas to carry out advisory and law enforcement work. It will also deploy about 100 members of fire crews to patrol country park areas and stand by for fire-fighting.
Personnel from the Civil Aid Service and Auxiliary Medical Service will also be present to patrol, fight fires and give medical aid. In the air above will be Government Flying Services teams in helicopters. They will broadcast messages from the air reminding grave sweepers of the dangers of fires and additional fire crews will be on standby.
Public volunteers will trek through the hills in key fire danger areas, handing out leaflets, water and aid.
This is also the first year that Friends of the Earth will be working together with the AFCD to patrol grave sites on Sunday and on the day of Ching Ming.
'This year we will have more than 50 volunteers moving around the countryside handing out pamphlets and urging caution by people who are going to worship at their ancestors' graves,' Mr Lau said.
'We have to be polite but we will be firm as we remind them of their responsibilities.
'We will be going to Lin Fa Shan grave sites in Tsuen Wan. The AFCD rangers are very knowledgeable and have advised us on the areas that are high risk. It's a good partnership. We are not an [enforcement] authority and we train volunteers to be extremely polite when they speak to the grave sweepers.'
Last Chung Yeung, the Conservancy Association launched a fire-prevention exercise on Lamma Island, distributing pre-festival pamphlets and visiting villages to spread the safety message. Fifty volunteers handed out bottled water and pamphlets. There were no hill fires on Lamma Island that day.
This Ching Ming, the association's programme is spreading across the New Territories. It has mobilised about 300 volunteers to visit villages and distribute leaflets before the festival. About 100 volunteers will be patrolling Tsen Tsz Wai, Tsing Shan Monastery, Wong Uk Tsuen and Butterfly Hill.
Working with the Fire Services Department and the Home Affairs Department, the association's volunteers will visit about 30 black spots before Ching Ming to speak to villagers.
Friends of the Earth Hong Kong has in the past three years organised a replanting exercise in areas badly scarred after Ching Ming.
Organisers say the group's annual Tree Planting Challenge has saved many of the hills of Hong Kong from soil erosion during the downpours of the summer wet season.
In spring last year, 10,000 saplings were planted in the Yuen Long area. But during Chung Yeung celebrations in November at least half were lost in the fire.
'It was very sad watching it happen,' Mr Lau said. 'We estimate that across Hong Kong that year, nearly 60,000 trees were lost, ranging from the mature and stately to so many humble saplings. But it is with glad hearts that we will be heading to this and other sites this year to replant still more saplings to replace those that were burned.'
The third Tree Planting Challenge will start on April 29 when 600 volunteers climb (and sometimes crawl) the hills of the New Territories, carrying saplings they will plant in badly affected areas.
'Yes, it sounds difficult mostly because our volunteers aren't accustomed to carrying heavy loads,' Mr Lau said. 'The biggest problem is lumping a load of saplings up the hills. Workers from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department are accustomed to carrying heavy bundles of young plants through the countryside, but for city-raised volunteers it's very tiring, especially if the soil is heavy and the terrain difficult.
'But at the end of the day, it gives them a true appreciation of nature. And it makes us all so very bitter when we see such hard work going up in smoke.'
Mr Lau said the quota for volunteer tree-planters for this year's Tree Planting Challenge was filled within two weeks. He attributed the strong interest to a change in the mentality of Hongkongers in the past 10 years.
'People today regard environmentalism as something they can physically get involved in. At first, environmental protection seemed to the average person merely to involve recycling. Now people realise that it also involves such important fields as heritage, conservation, global warming and air pollution. This awareness springs from the joint efforts of different green groups, the media, the internet and international action. Plus there is grassroots activity in school classrooms. The activists sowed the seeds, and the people now have higher environmental awareness.'
More than 70 per cent of Hong Kong's area is classified as countryside. According to a spokesman for the Security Bureau, the efforts of government departments and the public have led to a decrease in hill fires.
'We will continue to carry out publicity and enforcement efforts and to review them from time to time,' a bureau spokesman said. 'But we must stress that our efforts to prevent and fight hill fires cannot be effective without the full support and assistance of the general public.'
Legislative Councillor Albert Chan Wai-yip, who represents New Territories West, says the government should do more about the fires.
'Every Ching Ming and Chung Yeung there are lots of hill fires,' said Mr Chan, who has a holiday house on Lantau. 'The government doesn't do enough to restrict the activities around grave areas. People shouldn't be allowed to burn their offerings in the open. Instead, we should have regulations that offerings should be burnt in a metal tin or something else that encloses the flames.
'In the past, residents of older estates would stage traditional ceremonies and burn offerings in the open. Management companies limited these practices by putting in metal receptacles and restricting the burning of offerings. Now, there is less chance of fire. The same methods should be applied in the New Territories.'
Under the Country Parks Ordinance, any person who lights or uses fire in locations outside designated areas commits an offence and faces prosecution. Last year AFCD officers arrested 16 people for fire offences, of whom 13 were convicted. Their fines ranged from HK$300 to HK$1,000.
Billy Hau Chi-hang, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's department of ecology and biodiversity, said the reasons for hill fires were ignorance, lack of respect and carelessness.
'Enforcement can be strengthened,' Dr Hau said. 'If more people are prosecuted and fines are made more realistic, the carelessness will stop. Education is good but it will take a long time to be effective. Tough fines will act faster.'
He said many villagers still did not understand there was a problem with their graveside ceremonies. 'Hill fires are not necessarily started only by villagers,' Dr Hau said.
'But villagers do play a significant role and they need to be educated about the dangers of indiscriminate behaviour. The hill fire prevention programme organised by the Conservancy Association is very useful.'