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Heater blamed for fire in ancient Chinese town

BEIJING – Chinese authorities have detained a guesthouse operator whose unattended heater allegedly sparked a fire that burned for nearly 10 hours and destroyed an ancient Tibetan town in southern China, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

More than 2,000 firefighters, soldiers, police, local officials and volunteers responded to the early morning blaze on Jan. 11, which destroyed 343 houses and many historic artifacts in Dukezong, Shangri-La county’s old neighborhood.

Tang Ying, operator of the Ruyi Inn guesthouse, was detained and was being investigated for allegedly causing the fire after she forgot to turn off the heater, which later set fire to a curtain, Xinhua said.

The Shangri-La government could not be reached Saturday to confirm the report.

Strong winds caused the fire to spread quickly through the neighborhood, which had mostly wooden structures.

Local authorities have said a million-dollar fire prevention system failed to prevent the fire, with witnesses saying hydrants failed to pump out water and that fire engines were kept outside the area’s narrow alleys.

Critics also have raised questions about whether fire prevention had been overlooked in the rush to develop the old town to attract tourists.

Once called Gyaitang Zong, the county surrounding Dukezong renamed itself Shangri-La in 2001, hoping to draw tourists by referencing the mythical Himalayan land described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel.

In 2005, the county started to renovate its ancient Tibetan quarter of Dukezong, which dates back to more than 1,000 years and is known for its preserved cobbled streets, ancient structures and Tibetan culture.

Tourism is virtually the only industry in the traditional Tibetan region.

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