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Paris fire sends alarm on relics protection

By WANG KAIHAO | China Daily | Updated: 2019-04-18 06:24

The interior of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is littered with scorched wood on Tuesday. [Photo/Agencies]

An inferno that destroyed the spire and a large portion of the wooden roof structure of the 12th-century Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday reinforced a cautionary message to Chinese authorities about the need to better protect vulnerable heritage sites.

The National Cultural Heritage Administration held a staff meeting on Tuesday night at which officials discussed the Paris fire and six major fires that have taken place at Chinese cultural heritage sites this year.

"The fire at Notre Dame in Paris rang the warning bell for us," Song Xinchao, deputy director of the administration, said in an interview on Tuesday.

"The safety of cultural heritage sites is a red line that can never be crossed. It's a global issue," he said.

The six fires were in Sichuan, Fujian, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang provinces, officials said.

On Jan 6, a hall at Yunyan Temple in Jiangyou, Sichuan province, burned down. On Feb 2, a wooden family temple from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in Nanchang, Jiangxi, was destroyed by fire.

The most recent incident was Saturday in Jinjiang, Fujian, when the late Qing Dynasty residence of Wu Lu, the province's last zhuangyuan (top scorer on imperial examinations), was damaged.

Fire this year also destroyed a bridge dating from four centuries ago in Nanping, Fujian, a Qing Dynasty residence in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, and an office structure from the 1930s in Fuzhou, Jiangxi.

The operators of the sites hit by fire will be responsible for the damage, said the heritage administration. "Electrical faults and loose supervision over the use of fire during renovation are the main reasons" for the damage, the administration's statement said.

Though the fire at Notre Dame is under investigation, French officials said they suspect its source might have been related to restoration work on the cathedral.

Consultant Patrick Palem (right) checks statues saved just before Monday's fire by removal from Notre Dame's spire for restoration in Marsac-sur-L'Isle, France, on Tuesday. [Photo/Agencies]

"A large number of Chinese cultural heritage sites are being restored as well. We have no room for even the slightest error," Song said.

Liu Qingzhu, a cultural heritage expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said, "In ancient times, thunderstorms were the biggest threats for wooden architecture. They became much safer after lighting rods were widely installed. However, the use of electricity in restorations has created a new problem."

Unlike the stone structures of much ancient architecture in the West, wood was the primary building material in ancient China. "If a fire similar to the one at Notre Dame in Paris happened at a Chinese building, the whole building would probably burn down," Liu said.

Hours after the fire in Paris, the Palace Museum in Beijing, China's former imperial palace from 1420 to 1911 and also known as the Forbidden City, held an emergency meeting to go over its fire-prevention efforts. It is the world's biggest architectural complex made of wood.

The museum has some 50 firefighters on duty around the clock, a fire engine, over 160 hydrants, thousand of extinguishers, and fire walls, officials said last year.

But not all relics have such rigid supervision. A joint comprehensive survey was started in September by the administration and the Ministry of Emergency Management. It found that 33 major institutions still don't meet standards, and the State Council issued a notice on Wednesday that they were to receive the highest-level supervision.

On Tuesday, the administration urged local governments to immediately launch evaluations of potential hazards.

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