Wooden stilt houses go up in flames at Lantau's Tai O

Fire made worse by exploding gas cylinders but no one is injured in two-hour blaze

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 5:40am

Fire ripped through a cluster of stilt houses in Tai O fishing village on Lantau Island yesterday, triggering an air, sea and land emergency operation.

No casualties were reported. Last night, about 10 households that were left homeless were put up by the Housing Department at the Lung Tin Transit Centre, on a public housing estate.

The fire broke out in one of the riverfront houses on Kat Hing Street at 3.07pm and torched liquefied petroleum gas cylinders nearby. They exploded, causing the flames to spread to other stilt houses, made mainly of wooden planks and metal sheets.

Emergency crews took about two hours to douse the blaze. On land, 31 fire engines, two mini-trucks bearing firefighting equipment and diving gear, and two ambulances were deployed.

The Fire Services Department also sent a fireboat, a speedboat and a boat carrying divers. From the air, a Government Flying Service helicopter was called in to water-bomb the blaze.

Ho Sun-wah, who works in a cafe a few houses away, said no one seemed to have noticed anything wrong until residents saw smoke billowing. "I was working in the kitchen when some of our guests saw a mysterious mist nearby," Ho said. "We realised some of the houses were already on fire and immediately evacuated all our guests and staff."

He said some residents volunteered to help the elderly move to safety before firefighters arrived. "The water bombs didn't seem to be much use, and the water pressure on the jets used by the firefighters also looked inadequate."

A dozen teenage students and their teachers from a nearby school were seen removing gas canisters from the homes of elderly people with the flames just 100 metres away.

Wong Wai-king, a Tai O resident who used to run a private heritage museum in the village, said witnesses told her that the emergency response was chaotic. "The firefighters seemed to spend some time connecting the hoses. Had they been more efficient, the blaze might have been extinguished much earlier," she said. Wong noted that some of the stilt houses were separated by concrete homes. Had that not been the case, she said, the damage could have been worse as there were no fire breaks between the stilt houses.

The fire was extinguished just before 5pm. Last night, officers were investigating the cause.

In July 2000, Tai O suffered a blaze that burned down about 90 houses, equal to one-third of the settlement, leaving about 300 people homeless. The government allowed the houses to be reconstructed at the fishing village, which is popular with tourists.