Tai O fishing village is an enduring tourist attraction that owes little to the kind of extravagant spending and promotion lavished on theme parks. It thrives on the timeless appeal of a simple, traditional lifestyle that attracts residents and visitors alike. Unfortunately, a marriage of modern amenity with authenticity does not always confer protection from fire, storm and tempest, as we were reminded by the fire that swept through a cluster of the village's famous stilt houses and left 10 households homeless.
No one was hurt, thanks partly to residents who helped the elderly move to safety and local students and teachers who removed LPG gas cylinders from threatened homes. The fire spread when flames reached nearby gas cylinders. For many residents the fire would have evoked memories of the one 13 years ago that destroyed 90 houses, a third of the settlement, leaving about 300 people homeless. Five years ago landslides triggered by a record downpour cut off road access and water supplies for days.
The stilt houses stand in an estuary, without land for developers to covet, which is partly why Tai O's character and charm has endured. But its resistance to change and openness to the elements makes it vulnerable to storms and fire. The size of the land, sea and air response to the latest fire was awesome, but the impressions of witnesses were not reassuring. One said water bombs dropped by a Government Flying Service helicopter "didn't seem to be much use", and that the water pressure in the firefighters' hoses looked inadequate. A resident quoted witnesses as saying the response was chaotic, with firefighters seeming to spend too long connecting their hoses.
To be sure, onlookers are not fire-fighting experts. An authoritative report might throw a different light on things. But three emergencies in 13 years in a conservation site should be enough to prompt officials to review emergency measures among the mostly elderly residents. That the village draws tourists underlines the need to bolster preparedness.