Deaths by fire are a serious problem in China. In 1997, there were more than 28,000 fires that left 1,400 people dead and caused $85 million in damage. In 1995, more than 2,230 people died in fires. Fires routinely occur at shopping malls, cinemas and other public places. Many of are blamed on disregard for safety, corruption among officials responsible and shoddy construction. Some towns still rely on fire buckets to put out fires. Explosions in fireworks factories, many of them unlicenced and run with little regard to safety, are common in China

In 1977, 694 people, including 597 children, died in fire at a cinema on New Year Day. The Chinese government didn’t reveal the facts on the event until 2005.

Fires in China in the 1990s and Early 2000s

In 1997, 39 people were killed and 100 were injured in a hotel fire in Changsa, the capital of Hunan and the birthplace of Mao Zedong. All the fire exits were blocked, forcing many of the 200 or so guests to jump. The fire was put out in less than two hours with the help of 1,000 soldiers, 23 fire vehicles and 300 doctors. The owner of the hotel fled after the fire, which was believed to have been caused by faulty electrical equipment.

In another incident, 233 young people were killed at a birthday party at a dance hall after someone tossed a burning newspaper onto a sofa. After these and other tragic fires in the mid-1990s, the government launched a fire safety program that was directed especially at public buildings and hotels.

On Christmas day in 2000, 309 people were killed in fire that occurred during a Christmas party at a disco on the city of Luoyang. Most of the dead were party-goers trapped on the forth floor and construction workers renovating the second and third floors. The fire was caused by a welding accident and was blamed on "carelessness" in carrying out the renovations. The death toll was as high as it was because many of the emergency exits were locked and the stairwells were blocked with iron gates. The only way out was a single elevator.

The fire in Luoyang broke out at 9:35pm and took three hours to put out. Most of the victims suffocated. Twenty-three people were held responsible and were given prison sentences of up to 13 years. Luoyang residents staged protests demanding the prosecution of local safety officials who were believed to have taken bribes..

Tragic School Fire in Karamay

In 1994, 324 people, including 312 schoolchildren, were killed when a fire swept through a movie theater in Karamay in Xinjiang province. Most of the children, who were burned beyond recognition, were found near the theater's only exit. Makeshift shrines with pictures of the deceased children set up in Karamay was torn down by police.

“On Dec. 8, 1994, nearly 300 Chinese schoolchildren gathered in a remote western oil town to take part in a performance for school officials. But a stage light ignited a curtain, setting off a fire that engulfed the theater. Few students made it out alive. Today, their parents are still grieving and questions remain. Why were the children told to wait for the officials to escape first? Why were so many of the exits locked? When will the children be issued death certificates?” [Source: AP]

Independent filmmaker Xu Xin made a six-hour, black-and-white documentary about the event called “Karamay” that made its world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2010. The most touching interview is given by the only surviving student. Xu sensitively shows her scarred feet first, then plays her voice to a black screen before revealing her heavily disfigured face and hands. The director also obtains rare footage of the fire itself and its aftermath - one particularly gruesome scene shows a hospital room piled with bodies. Xu got the video from parents - some of whom are police officials who had access to internal footage that has likely never been aired]

Karamay is located in the Xinjiang. The 325 deaths from the 1994 fire, including students and teachers, cut across ethnic lines: the victims were Han, Uighur and Kazakh. Thirteen local officials were sentenced to jail terms of up to seven years for negligence and the parents were paid compensation, but many still think the government hasn't done enough.

So Xu had to proceed carefully. He showed up unannounced at the grave where the victims are buried on the 13th anniversary of the fire with a small digital camera and introduced himself to parents paying their respects to their children. From his initial contacts, he managed to track down more than 60 parents.

Fire at an Internet Café in China

In June 2002, a fire at an illegal Internet café in Beijing killed 24 people. Most of the dead were students at a nearby university. The fire blocked the main entrance. Other doors and windows were bolted shut or barred to keep the police out. One survivor told AP, “It was around 3:00am when I smelled gasoline and saw thick smoke coming up from the bottom of the stairs. I told a café employee, who went downstairs to check. He yelled there was a fire and we all tried to escape. My throat was filled with smoke and I couldn’t breath and couldn’t talk.”

A factory worker who lived near the café told the Washington Post, “They were yelling, “save us! Save us! Good people, help us! We don’t want to die!!” Their voices sounded strange, desperate and hoarse from the smoke.” The worker managed to help save seven people by unscrewing bars on a window.

A 13-year-old boy and 14-year-old boy set the fire because the owner would not let them in the café. They were given life prison sentences. The owner of the shop was also imprisoned. The fire led to crack down on Internet cafes and the temporary closing of all the Internet cafes in Beijing.

Fires in China in the Mid 2000s

In February 2003, 33 people were killed in a fire at the Tiantan Hotel in Harbin in northeast China. In February 2004, al least 53 people were killed and more than 70 were injured when a fire raced through a five-story shopping mall in Jilin in Jilin Province in northeast China. The fire was blamed on a cigarette butt that was dropped in some trash. The high death toll was blamed on blocked emergency exits and the failure to properly sound an alarm.

The fire started in the first floor. Many of this of the first floor escaped. Most of those who died were trapped on the third and forth floors where the smoke became very dense and a bath house and pool hall were located. It took 260 firemen with 60 trucks three hours to put out the fire, which started in a temporary storehouse near a boiler room at the back of the building.

In another fire in February 2004, this one in eastern Zhejiang Province, 40 women were killed at bamboo temple after smoldering incense left as an offering to the gods ignited material that lead to the entire temple burning down.

In June 2005, 31 people were killed and 14 were injured after a fire engulfed the top three floors of the Huanan Hotel in Shantou, Guangdong. On November 2005, a fire caused by an electrical problem at a hospital in the northeastern city of Liaoyuan killed 39 people and forced patients to jump from forth floor windows.

On Christmas Day in December 2005, a fire at an illegal bar in Zhongshan, a city near Macau, killed 26 people and injured eight. More than 100 people were in the bar when the fire started around 11:00pm. Witnesses said the fire was preceded by an explosion and that the bar was crowded because it was Christmas day. Four brothers who owned the bar were arrested. The bar had no fire extinguishers and the emergency exits were too narrow.

In September 2006, a fire at an indoor market in a five-story building in Huzhou in the coastal province of Zhejiang, killed 14 people.

Fires in China in 2007

In July 2007, a blast ripped through a karaoke parlor in Tianshifu township in the northeastern province of Liaoning, killing 25 people and injuring 33. The blast was powerful enough to collapse the two-story, steel-and concrete building that housed the karaoke and bury a couple of cars. Early reports did not say what caused the blast.

In August 2007, a fire that started in a kitchens raged through a popular restaurant in the city of Chaoyan in Liaoning Province, killing 11 people and injured 16 others. In September 2007, a fire broke at a nightclub in southern Jiangxi Province, killing 12 people celebrating the traditional Moon Festival. In November 2007, a fire at a karaoke bar in Chengde County in Hebei Province, killed 11 people..

In December 2007, a fire at a restaurant in Zhangmutou in southern Guangdong Province killed 10 people. Ten hours earlier a fire in a ground floor flower shp in Wenzhou in eastern Zhejiang Province killed 21 people. The fire in Guangdong spread 400 square meters before being put out. The fire in Zhejiang spread to a dance floor and an apartment. Most of the dead were elderly doing morning exercises. Two people that jumped to escape were seriously injured. Firefighters evacuated 200 people and needed three hours to put out the blaze.

Fires in 2008 and 2009

In August 2008, a series of explosions that continued for about seven hours at a chemical plant in Yizhou, Guangxi Province killed 20 people and left 18 missing. The plant produced chemicals for adhesives and paints.

In January 2009, 15 people were killed and 20 were injured in blaze triggered by fireworks set off inside a bar in the city of Changke in southeast China. The fire began when a group celebrating a birthday set off fireworks from their table and the ceiling caught n fire. Most of those who died suffocate to death.

In December 2008, an explosion caused by detonators being illegally stored by a villager in Donggancheng village on central Henan Province destroyed 10 houses and killed 15 people.

Mandarin Oriental Hotel Fire

In February 2009, a fire broke out in the unfinished but almost-completed Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Beijing, killing one firefighter overcome by fumes and injuring seven other people. The 159-meter-high, 30-story hotel, designed by Dutch architects Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, were part of the stunning CCTV complex. Flames six to nine meters high that shot out of the buildings were reflected on the CCTV tower which emerged relatively unscathed.

The fire was caused by a powerful and unapproved firework used in an illegal fireworks display set off to celebrate the Lantern Festival. Owners of the property had ignored warnings that the powerful fireworks were dangerous and not allowed. Twelve people, including four CCTV employees, were detained in connection with the fire. Eight members of a pyrotechnic crew fled the scene when the fire broke out, leaving behind, 21 boxes of unused fireworks.

Dance Club Fire

In September 2008, 44 people died and 88 were injured in a nightclub fire and the subsequent stampede at the unlicensed Dance King nightclub in Shenzhen. The fire was started when some fireworks ignited some flammable material on the club ceiling. According to witnesses the fire was caused by a fireworks stunt that went wrong in song routine on the club’s third floor. One witness said, “the performer was shooting a gun, trying to shoot off some fireworks. He was aiming at the ceiling but a piece of cloth caught fire. Everybody started running out.” A staff member at the club said, “There was only a narrow the hall. Many people got hurt in the stampede.”

Thirteen people, including the managers, safety officer and performers, were arrested. Three police officers and four government officials were charged with corruption in connection with the case. They were charged with bribery and dereliction of duty for allowing the nightclub to operate without a license and to conduct prostitution and drug trafficking. Six people, including two former police offices and a firefighter were given jail sentences. One of the policemen was sentenced to 13 years for taking $44,000 in bribes from the club

Fires in China in 2010 and 2011

In May 2011, a fire at a hotel in Tongua city in Jilin Province in northeastern China killed 10 people and injured 35 others. About 140 firefighters were deployed at the site. The fire was out after half an hour. About 150 people were safely evacuated from the seven-story building. The fire started on the first floor and spread to the second and third floors. No cause was mentioned in early reports of the event.

In April 2011, a fire at an illegal garment shop in a four-story building in southern Beijing killed at least 17 people and injured 24 others. The fire occurred at 1:00am. Many of the dead were workers sleeping on the second floor. Bars installed over the windows to keep thieves out may have prevent people for escaping.

In December 2010 an explosion and fire at an Internet Café in Guizhou Province killed six people and injured 37.

Shanghai Fire in 2010

In November 2010, a fire in Shanghai engulfed a 28-story high-rise apartment building, killing 58 people and injuring 70 others. It was one of the deadliest fires in recent years. The devastating fire burned for more than four hours before it was put out at about 6:30 p.m., shocking this busy city of 20 million and raising troubling questions about the safety of high-rise apartment buildings in a city crowded with new skyscrapers. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, November 17, 2010]

“The fire occurred as the building was undergoing renovation but was occupied by several hundred people, including many retired teachers. The city’s chief firefighter said that the apartment was covered in scaffolding made of flammable nylon netting and bamboo. Buildings in much of the city can be seen draped in similar scaffolding. The next day authorities detained eight people after discovering that unlicensed welders may have been responsible for a fire. Police held four unlicenced welders, who police said produced sparks that triggered the blaze which quickly spread on bamboo and nylon nets shrouding the building. A local government construction team was one of those involved in the renovation.”

According to to Xinhua the fire erupted at about 2 p.m. After the building caught fire, more than 100 fire engines raced to the scene. Sandy Gu, a 25-year-old airport worker, said she was preparing to leave when she began to smell something strange. Before long, flames were coming in through the window, she said, then she rushed out the door and ran down the stairwell. “One of my neighbors died in the fire,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “She was a 50-year-old woman who just came back from visiting her son in Australia. Poor her!”

“Television images of the fire show some residents climbing down scaffolding on the building, while at least one person was rescued by helicopter. Several witnesses said some people were forced to jump to their deaths. At a news conference on Tuesday, Shanghai officials said 17 of those hospitalized were in critical condition. “I never thought a fire could end up killing so many people,” said Li Dezhu, a 66-year-old retiree who escaped from the 17th floor of the building. “We’ve heard about hotels and other entertainment places on fire, but never a residence. And we are the biggest city in the whole country.”“

An investigation of he project turned up illegal contracts, unsafe materials and unqualified workers. Particularly alarming was the widespread use of flammable insulation used to meet new energy standard.

Afterwards Beijing order tighter anti-fire measures nationwide.

Problems with Fire Codes in Chinese Buildings

Shanghai’s fire chief said, “Fighting fires in high- residential buildings is different than for other buildings, residential high rises have more flammable materials and more sources for causing fires., they have metal security doors, so rescuing people can be very difficult.” This raised alarms among the residents of Shanghai’s 15,000 high-rise buildings. Most American big cities have tough fire safety codes and require that sprinklers be installed in all new high-rise buildings. But Shanghai does not require sprinklers in residential buildings, several experts said. Victims of the fire said the 28-story building did not have sprinklers, Safety experts say sprinklers could have slowed the spread of the fire and allowed more residents to escape. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, November 17, 2010]

There are worries here because most of China’s big cities are in the midst of massive building booms as part of an urbanization drive that will reshape this nation over the next two decades. By then, most people in China will live in urban areas and a majority of those will live in high-rise apartment buildings. With China’s property market booming, developers are scrambling to acquire land and build and sell residences as fast as possible. And while many engineers say construction quality has improved in most big cities, there are still many problems.

In 2009, a 13-story apartment building that was nearing completion toppled nearly intact, killing one construction worker and creating a scandal about shoddy construction during the housing boom. The cause of the collapse was found to be illegal underground excavation. But early this year, two developers tied to the case were convicted of embezzlement and corruption and sentenced to life in prison.

The building that caught fire in Shanghai was built in 1997, the government said, and was occupied a year later. It housed about 440 residents and was undergoing renovation so that it could be fitted with energy saving equipment.

Forest Fires in China

The taiga forests in northern China are incredibly prone to forest fries and the they sometimes spread into Russia. Many are started by careless people, The effort to put them out are hampered by a shortage of firefighting equipment and helicopters.

The Great Black Dragon fire in May 1987, burned for more than a month and devastated more than 46,000 square miles on the Russian side of the Amur and around 5,000 square miles on the Chinese side. China and the Soviet Union did not cooperate at all in fighting the fires.

In June 2006, massive forest fires in northeast China in Heilongjiang Province engulfed more than 50,000 hectares of forest and were battled by more than 20,000 firefighters. The fires were sparked by lightning and linked with below-normal rainfall.

Image Sources: China Daily, Environmental News

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.