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Firemen play cat and mouse with fire risks in Tibet's antient monuments
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17:04, February 23, 2009

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To believers and visitors, the old scriptures, wooden artifacts, and colorful prayer flags in the Lhasa's Potala Palace, the former winter palace of the Dalai Lamas,are priceless treasures.

But to Logsang Nyancha, they are fire risks.

Logsang is deputy head of the palace fire brigade, charged with protecting the cultural relics in Tibet's most recognizable landmark and a world cultural heritage site listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1994.

At 3,763 meters above sea level, the Potala Palace is the largest building in Tibet and embodies the finest aspects of construction, painting and religious art in Tibet.

An ethnic Tibetan, Logsang has worked in the palace since graduating from military school in 2004, but he learned about the fire risks long before.

A short circuit in electrical wiring started a blaze in one of the prayer halls late one night in 1984, in the days before the palace had resident fire fighters. The fire brigade arrived as soon as they received the call, but it took three hours and the help of monks and nearby residents to extinguish the fire.

More than ten Tibetan calligraphists took four years to rewrite some 20,000 pages of the Tengyur, the Tibetan collection of commentaries to the Buddhist teachings, which was half burned in the fire.

It also cost many skillful craftsmen five years to repair the prayer hall.

The next day, a team of 10 firemen, including Logsang's father, Qiongda, was stationed in the palace.

"I learned about the fire in my childhood. When I had to choose my college major, I decided on fire fighting without hesitation," Logsang says

The story told by his father, now deputy head of the Potala Palace administration office, still leaves an impression, he says.

"It was my first lesson about the importance of protecting the palace from fire," he said.

It was also Yixi Cering's first lesson when he joined the team 10 years ago. Since then, he has risen each day at 6 a.m. (half an hour earlier in summer) before the palace opens to visitors at 9 a.m., to patrol the prayer halls all day.

Before going to bed after 11 p.m., Yixi, 26, and his colleagues, must check more than 2,000 light bulbs, all the incense burners and electrical equipment to ensure they are switched off, extinguished and safe.

"I can draw a map of the wiring with eyes closed," says Yixi.

An ethnic Tibetan, Yixi became head of one of the palace's four squads in 2002. He sleeps lightly, constantly alert for every slight sound, especially from the ceiling when he must get up and check for mice.

"If the mouse gnaws through a wire, it can cause a fire," says Yixi, adding the likelihood has diminished since the introduction of cats.

However, the work has left him with a nasal inflammation because of the cold, humid air in the palace. "Some of my colleagues suffer joint inflammations," he says.

The situation improved after fire prevention authorities installed air-conditioners to heat the firemen's dorms in early 2006.

Yixi's Han colleague, Jiang Chaoxin, had more to learn, especially about the religious rules in the sacred palace.

He recalls one morning in January 2003, when he accidentally splashed some water in the bucket of a monk next to him as he washed his face.

The monk scolded Jiang for his carelessness. Jiang was baffled by the reaction, but his Tibetan colleagues explained that the monk's water was to be offered to Buddha statues and was supposed to remain pure.

"I knew then I had a lot to learn, and I wrote all these things in my notebook and read them during my spare time," Jiang said.

The fire brigade is now 30 strong and the Potala Palace has been fire free since 1984, and other historic Lhasa sites are following its example.

In December, teams of about 10 firemen along with fire fighting equipment were each deployed at the Sera, Zhaibung and Gandan monasteries.

"The move is significant for the safety of cultural relics in the temples and the lives of monks, believers and tourists," says Khyungse, political commissar of the Tibet regional fire brigade.

More than two decades later, the devastating fire is an enduring lesson.

Zhan Shenghong, 17, the youngest fireman in the Sera Monastery, said he knew nothing about Tibetan history, religion and temples when he joined the team in December.

He received 10 days of training before his posting, during which firemen from the Potala Palace passed on their experience.

Tibetologists also explained how to talk to the monks respectfully and courteously.

He attends seminars about fire prevention or Tibetan culture each week.

"Winter, the dry season, is especially important in fire prevention because of the wooden constructions," Zhan says.

The Tibetan language lessons have helped him befriend the monks.

"They teach me some simple sentences (in Tibetan) every day," he says.

Many of Tibet's historic sites, including the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and the Drepung, Sera, Ganden, Tashilhunpo, and Sakya monasteries are under the protection of the state or the regional government, which allocate funds annually for their maintenance.

Since the 1980s, more than 700 million yuan (about 102 million U.S. dollars) and large amounts of gold and silver have been allocated to restore religious sites. Tibet has more than 1,700 religious sites, accommodating 46,000 monks and nuns.

For Logsang, fire prevention may be the most significant measure to protect these sites due to their materials and characteristics.

The Potala Palace has seen four major fires since it was originally built in the Seventh Century. It was ruined in a fire caused by lightning, and subsequently restored by the Fifth Dalai Lama more than 300 years ago.

Now, the fire brigade has been equipped with high-tech facilities, including smoke and temperature sensors in the prayer halls, and high-pressure water mist fire extinguishers.

It is hoped the water mist extinguishers would cause less damage to the paper scriptures than regular water sprinklers, Logsang says.

But the most important safety measure is still "the human factor".

"Our strategy is just to keep a close watch on everything," he says.

Every fireman in the brigade can move from the foot of the palace to the top within five minutes, compared with an hour or longer for visitors.

They hold monthly drills, when every fireman must show he remembers the exact location of every cultural relic in the palace and how to fight fires in different areas.

It's tough, but necessary and worthwhile, Logsang said.

"If they burn, they will be forever gone," he says.

Source: Xinhua



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