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UPDATED: September 6, 2010 NO. 37 SEPTEMBER 13, 1999
Protecting a World Heritage Site

One of the five most sacred Buddhist mountains in China, Mountain Tai, or Taishan, has been listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a World Heritage Site.

The means of protecting UNESCO heritage sites are always of great concern, and the situation on Taishan offers unique and unusual conditions that require special attention.

The summit of the mountain, where many of the oldest and most incredible architectural treasures are located, is 1,545 meters above the valley floor. Given that you cannot make a straight vertical ascent, and since the trails that do climb the slope wind around the mountainside, the actual distance from the foot to the summit is more like 4,500 meters. Narrow mountain roads follow hairpin bends to a midpoint along the central path, and a cable car can carry ten or so passengers to a point only a few hundred meters from the summit. However, this access limits the size of equipment that could be taken up the mountain in an emergency.

When the Tai'an City government was tasked with protecting the heritage site, they turned to the Tai'an branch of the National Fire Service, itself a branch of the Public Security Bureau. The Tai'an firefighters have been repeatedly recognized as leaders in both organization and innovation in fire prevention and firefighting. They have been cited as the top station in the province and among the leaders nationwide.

According to Commander Lu Jun, it was clear from the start that fire protection could not come from the main Tai'an fire-house nor any of the five existing sub-units. The decision was made to establish a firefighting presence on the mountain itself. Because the posting would be considered a hardship, volunteers from the sub-units would rotate on a monthly basis. The main station would provide supervisory and support personnel.

But simply establishing a fire station on the mountain was not enough to end the threat of fires. The mountain environment presents additional problems. Perpetually blanketed in a shroud of mist, the rugged peak is a source of small springs and brooks that provide some ground water to the abundant forest vegetation along the mountainside. But there is no water supply sufficient in the case of a fire.

A new means of battling the flames had to be devised. Some of the best minds in the business went to work on possible solutions. Some of the standard tools were employed, such as permanent fire breaks, chemical fire extinguishers throughout the temple complexes, and numerous signs warning visitors to be aware of the danger of fire. But these would not be enough to combat a genuine brush fire racing up the mountain.

It was by shear accident that a perfect solution was found. During a birthday celebration for one of the senior firefighters, the men gathered around a cake glowing from a handful of candles. One of the team joked that so many candles constituted a real forest fire. And as his colleagues bent to blow out the candles, a different light lit in his mind. Here was the solution. Blow out the fire just like you blow out candles on a cake.

Special air guns were designed. In effect, they are little more than very powerful versions of the common lawn blower found in many garages across North America. With a gasoline-powered fan at one end and a long, narrow barrel, the air guns throw out a stream of air that can extinguish small fires and direct and drive larger fires toward a fire break, depriving them of the chance to spread toward more fuel.

In addition to fighting fires, the station on Taishan also performs numerous public services functions. Anyone who has ever climbed Taishan has probably found themselves half-way up the slope, totally exhausted, and wondering how they will ever get back down even if they make it to the top. Well, they needn't fear. When a visitor to the mountain is injured or in some other way physically unable to make it to either the cable car station at the summit or the road-head at the mid-levels, the alarm goes out to the volunteers at the Taishan Fire Station. After first providing first-aid, they use stretchers to carry the injured person to safety.

The volunteers also frequently scour the mountainsides along the main paths collecting trash that has been thoughtlessly tossed aside by the pilgrims and tourists. Although this may not actually prevent a forest fire from breaking out, it sets a good example to others.

The efforts of the Taishan Fire Station, and of all the firefighters working with the Tai'an Fire Services, have been a rousing success. According to Commander Lu Jun, there have been no major fires on the mountain nor in Tai'an City in the past five years. A desire to do the right thing and an innovative twist in the way it is done have guaranteed the protection of our cultural heritage. The treasures at Taishan are safe and will remain safe for generations to come.

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