Every spring at Ching Ming and at Chung Yueng in autumn, precious hillside woodlands go up in flames. Everyone knows careless grave-sweepers will twice yearly spark blazes that sweep across country parks, leaving behind a charred and hideous wasteland. But year after year the government seems unprepared for a disaster that everyone knows is going to happen. Over the recent Chung Yeung festival firemen counted 183 fires; 573 hectares were devastated. There was one exception to this gloomy scenario. As Sai Kung smouldered, Tai Mo Shan burned and fires swept perilously close to housing at Tuen Mun, the skies over Lamma Island were clear of smoke. There was not a single fire on the island, although scores of family parties lit incense and burned tomb-side offerings. What was the cause of this miracle? Well, surprise! It had nothing to do with the government. Several months ago, the Conservancy Association decided basic preventative action should be taken to dampen the grave-sweeping spirit. Chief executive Lister Cheung Lai-ping led a team of 20 volunteers to Lamma a week before the festival. They visited hamlets and put up posters saying: 'We can stop hill fires.' They pleaded with villagers to take care and to spread this warning to visiting clansmen coming to pay their respects. The day of the festival, 30 volunteer conservationists were posted on paths leading to the highland graves. They chatted to people heading to the hills, gave them bottles of water, offered to go with them to help cut long grass surrounding the graves. Such simple, inexpensive tactics worked. 'It's obvious,' says Ms Cheung. 'What's the point of planting trees and preaching preservation if every year careless people start fires that destroy the countryside? We decided to do something positive.' Their action puts the government to shame. The government claims to pay 'great importance' to preserving hillsides and preventing fires during the grave-sweeping festivals. There's a nine-member 'interdepartmental taskforce on hill fires'. This year, they sought aid from the Heung Yee Kuk and district councils, ran publicity campaigns, put up posters and gave out leaflets. Hundreds of auxiliary volunteers were on duty, as were firemen, police, park wardens and helicopter pilots. Officials handed out leaflets to grave-sweepers. I reckon some of those came in handy to light fires at overgrown tombs. There were 'shouts' from helicopters and warnings over radio. Home Affairs ran publicity drives. All was in vain. To me, the answer seems simple. Put uniformed patrols in the hills, spot people breaking the law. Drop patrols by helicopters and arrest them. Drag them to court, impose huge fines, make sure these anti-social louts appear on television and in the press. Name them, shame them, fine them and charge them for repairing the awful damage caused by their irresponsible stupidity. Do it once and the problem will end forever. Government agencies are obviously ineffectual. This is self-evident; look at blackened hillsides that will take decades to be reafforested. Efforts were made this year. These were not enough. If the government can't do the job, then let's empower competent people like the Conservancy Association and other green groups to do it. They were successful on Lamma this year. Can they do it all over Hong Kong? Let them try, I say. They are obviously more effective than government departments. Like Lamma, the entire countryside could be protected if government followed the example of this small, self-motivated group. Government has the full history of where fires take place during festivals. Every single grave is registered. The locations are known. They should station wardens in uniforms with binoculars and walkie-talkies within obvious sight on every path leading to every grave. This would save a huge amount of money. This year, Government Flying Services helicopters whirled overhead from morning until well after dark dumping water on blazing hillsides. Teams of firemen and Civil Aid Services volunteers tramped laboriously up the steep slopes to fight the blazes. Nobody seems to analyse the cost of this twice-yearly expenditure. It runs into many millions of dollars. There is also the expense of replanting tens of thousands of destroyed trees. And let's not forget the emotional and aesthetic costs of blackened hillsides and the loss of pleasure to the public. The hillsides belong to the people. It is our treasures that are violated twice yearly by thoughtless and foolish people. Don't let them get away with it. If the authorities can't do the job, which is obvious, put power in the hands of someone who can succeed.