Those out and about in Kunming's Xishan, Panlong and Guandu districts on the evening of April 16 may have noticed something wasn't quite right. The air had an acrid taste and sunlight was first tinted an eerie orange and then blotted out by a plume of gray smoke. The odd atmospheric effects were the result of a wildfire that broke out Wednesday roughly 15 kilometers northwest of the city center.
The fire was first reported at 3pm by residents of Xishan District (西山区) living on Qitai Mountain (棋台山) in the village of Lizhe (利者村). One hundred and thirty firefighters were dispatched to the scene along with four support vehicles. Upon their arrival, they reportedly found locals had already banded together to battle the blaze.
People living near where the fire broke out were evacuated by emergency crews. The areas where the fire is burning is sparsely populated and no casualties have been reported. Four buildings — one barn and three houses — have so far been destroyed by the flames. Overnight, firefighting crews were steadily reinforced by army units and volunteer firemen from nearby towns. More than 1,500 people are now battling the blaze and have formed a six-kilometer "firewall" in an effort to control the flames from spreading further.
Firefighting efforts have been hampered by poor infrastructure, steep mountain terrain, high temperatures and blustery and erratic wind conditions, according to a spokesman from the Kunming Fire Prevention Bureau. Even before the Qitai Mountain fire began, most pine forests around Kunming were under high risk of fires due to the current dry season. Conditions have been exacerbated by the relative humidity in Kunming dropping below 20 percent for more than a week — making it as dry during that span as the Sahara Desert.
Prevailing winds are pushing the fire west toward Anning (安宁), but officials caution its spread could change direction unexpectedly. Several important cultural sites and historic buildings are located nearby where fire is burning. One of these, centuries-old Bamboo Temple, has had brushes with fate before, most recently avoiding serious damage during a May 2010 forest fire.
As of this writing, no reports of containment or the exact size of the Qitai Mountain fire have been made. This morning after the blaze ignited, the western area of the city remains shrouded in thick, yellowish-brown smoke. Weather forecasts are calling for warm, windy and dry conditions to continue at least through the weekend, which could further hinder efforts to extinguish the flames.
Editor's note: This article will be updated as more information becomes available.