Firefighting equipment near the Tai O stilt houses that caught fire on Thursday have not been checked for nearly two years despite regulations requiring an annual inspection, the South China Morning Post has found.
Records on pressurised water extinguishers in Sha Chai Min and Sam Chung in the Lantau Island fishing village showed some were last maintained in August 2010 and others in 2011. Labels on the extinguishers said they were owned by the Tai O Rural Committee.
Fire service regulations require owners of fire service installations or equipment to keep them in efficient working order and ensure that they are inspected by a registered contractor at least once a year. Owners who do not comply with the rules risk a fine of up to HK$50,000.
"We didn't know the extinguishers were not checked regularly," said a villager, Mr Wong, in Sha Chai Min. "But even if they work, we prefer fire hose reels."
He said the villagers had asked the Fire Services Department to install fire hose reels in the area, but their demands were not met.
In July 2000, a pre-dawn blaze in the area gutted about 90 houses - one-third of the settlement - leaving about 300 people homeless.
The fire on Thursday broke out at 3.07pm in one of the riverfront houses on Kat Hing Street opposite the area, ripping through a cluster of stilt houses built mainly from wooden planks and metal sheets.
About 10 households were left homeless in this week's fire, but no casualties were reported.
A Fire Services Department spokeswoman said the department noted that the fire extinguishers' annual inspection had expired. Its officers would follow up on the matter, she said, adding that they would review the area's fire service facilities.
A Tai O Rural Committee spokeswoman said that after the July 2000 blaze, the committee was given a subsidy by the Islands District Council to install the fire extinguishers in the area. She admitted the committee's failure to ensure proper maintenance of the equipment, and said she would pass the case to the committee chairman for follow-up.
When the Post visited the area yesterday, the scene of the fire remained cordoned off as fire service officers gathered materials for their investigations.
An officer said the fire was likely to have been caused by a short circuit and that their initial investigation found nothing suspicious. "A witness [said] an air-conditioner burst into flames in one of the stilt houses [and the fire] spread quickly," he said, adding that there were up to six explosions as liquified petroleum gas cylinders also caught fire.