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LC Urgent Q1: Fire at Fa Yuen Street
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     Following is a question by the Hon Priscilla Leung Mei-fun under Rule 24(4) of the Rules of Procedure and a reply by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mr Stephen Lam, in the Legislative Council today (December 7):

Question:

     In less than a year after the fire at the Fa Yuen Street bazaar in December last year which destroyed around 50 hawker stalls, another fire broke out at a nearby location in the early hours of November 30 this year which resulted in heavy casualties. According to the owners of the hawker stalls in the vicinity of the fire scene, fire precautions have been enhanced following the authorities' recommendations, including reserving sufficient space between hawker stalls to facilitate the evacuation of residents of nearby buildings in case of fire, and providing appropriate space to separate hawker stalls which are not joined together to prevent the spread of fire. Nevertheless, it has been reported that the fire last week still spread very rapidly.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) after the fire which broke out at the end of last year, whether the authorities have comprehensively assessed the fire risk in several large downtown open-air bazaars, including those at Fa Yuen Street, Tung Choi Street and Temple Street, and reviewed the corresponding fire safety measures in place; if they have, of the results of the assessment and the review; if not, the reasons for that; as the owners of the hawker stalls at the site of the recent fire said that they had already enhanced fire precautions following the authorities' recommendations, but the fire still spread rapidly and resulted in heavy casualties, whether this indicates that the authorities' analysis of and conclusion on the causes of the fire which broke out at a nearby location at the end of last year were not comprehensive and thus could not prevent the recurrence of another tragedy;

(b) after the fire last week, whether the authorities have assessed the structural and overall safety of those residential buildings in the vicinity of the fire scene; if they have, of the results; as some victims are worried about their safety in the future, and they have indicated that they dare not move back to the aforesaid buildings even after the closure order on the fire scene is lifted, whether the authorities have any measure in place to help rehouse these residents; if they have, of the measures; and

(c) of the emergency financial relief measures provided by the authorities to the affected residents and family members of the deceased and injured this time; whether the Government will consider using the Community Care Fund to provide emergency assistance if the victims cannot benefit from the relevant measures?

Reply:

President,

     First of all, on behalf of the HKSAR Government, I wish to extend our condolences to the victims of the fire and also wish that those who are still being hospitalised will soon recover.

     Immediately after the outbreak of the fire at Fa Yuen Street in the early hours of November 30, at the direction of the Chief Executive, relevant bureaux and departments of the HKSAR government have set up an inter-departmental working group to handle relief work and to enhance public safety.

     In sum, we are taking follow-up actions along the following five directions.

     First, rendering relief and assistance to the fire victims. After the outbreak of the fire, we immediately opened up community centres to provide temporary shelter to the fire victims and to conduct registration. Relevant departments including the Home Affairs Department, Social Welfare Department (SWD) and Housing Department (HD) have provided various forms of assistance to the fire victims in accordance with their existing policies.

     Charitable organisations and other civic-minded members of the community have also shown their care for the victims. About five to six million dollars of donations were collected within a matter of days. Families with members who passed away during the fire can each receive emergency assistance of about $300,000; other residents directly affected by the fire can also receive emergency assistance of more than $60,000 per household.

     Besides, HD has also made available the temporary accommodation in Shek Lei to temporarily house people who do not have a home to go back to. As at December 6, 62 families comprising a total of 126 affected persons have moved there.  They can temporarily live in the temporary accommodation for three months.

     We hope that these measures can help the fire victims tide over this difficult period and resume normal life as soon as possible.  At present, the first stage of Government's relief work has basically been completed.

     Secondly, the fire has resulted in nine deaths and 34 injuries. Up to now, five persons are still being hospitalised and are in either critical or serious condition. The Hospital Authority will try their utmost to provide them with medical treatment.

     Thirdly, the Police and the Fire Services Department (FSD) have started extensive and in-depth investigation into the cause of the fire.  If there is evidence indicating that any criminal element is involved, we will take vigilant enforcement action.

     Fourthly, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), Buildings Department (BD) and FSD have taken actions in several areas.

     FEHD has tightened up the inspection of over 40 hawker stalls areas, and will take strict enforcement actions against those breaching the regulations. To obviate the risk of fire, each hawker stall licensee can only operate within the permitted area. The canopy of a stall cannot be connected with other stalls or adjacent buildings. Furthermore, during non-operating hours, any goods stored in the stall must be kept within the stall area as prescribed by the licence.

     In the coming six months, BD will also strive to complete the inspection of about 300 old buildings built before 1980 that are six to twelve storeys in height with double staircases and hawker stalls in front of them. BD will take enforcement action immediately, if irregularities are found and any alteration works have blocked the fire escape. FSD will provide support to the work of FEHD and BD.

     The objective of all these actions is to minimise the chance of recurrence of similar fire incidents based on existing laws and policies.

     Fifthly, with a view to managing the hawker stalls more effectively and to enhancing public safety, Food and Health Bureau and FEHD will take the lead in examining various feasible options to enhance fire safety of the hawker stalls. In assessing these measures, we will have two considerations.  First and foremost, measures to be adopted must be able to enhance public safety and to minimize the risk of fire. At the same time, such measures would also need to take into account the interests of the licensees of the hawker stalls.

     Possible options suggested so far for enhancing public safety include: dismantling the stalls after trading hours, keeping only the metal frames for display within the approved pitch but removing the goods, introducing a demerit points system, relocation of the hawker stalls, etc. We are prepared to listen to the views of the Legislative Council, District Council, members of the public and trade representatives on these measures.

     Our intention is, after detailed study and consideration, to put forth proposals and consult the public on feasible measures to enable the community to have an in-depth and substantive discussion on the issue. If necessary, we can take forward the relevant measures in stages starting with those which are easier to implement.

     In respect of the questions raised by Dr Hon Priscilla Leung, my replies are as follows íV

(a) FSD has been providing assistance to FEHD in enhancing the fire safety standard of hawker stalls. Since the fire at the hawker stalls in Fa Yuen Street in December last year, FEHD, in conjunction with FSD, the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department and the hawker associations concerned, has implemented fire safety improvement measures, which include ensuring sufficient space in the carriageway for fire appliances and firemen; allowing sufficient space between hawker stalls to facilitate evacuation of residents of buildings in the vicinity; providing proper separation space between un-linked hawker stalls so as to prevent the spread of fire; ensuring that stalls are erected with fire-resisting materials; requiring hawker stalls to obtain independent electricity supply from legal sources, etc.

     According to the observations of FSD at the scene, highly combustible canvas or plastic materials were found on top of some of the hawker stalls in Fa Yuen Street and the separation space between un-linked hawker stalls was inadequate, thus threatening fire safety. However, the actual causes of the fire and the circumstances leading to the spread of fire cannot be ascertained until the investigation is completed.

     Since the No. 4 alarm fire broke out in Fa Yuen Street, FSD has joined forces with FEHD in conducting inspections in areas where residential buildings are found near closely packed hawker stalls and in reminding the hawker stalls to observe fire safety measures. In light of this recent fire incident in Fa Yuen Street, FEHD, FSD and other departments concerned are now reviewing the fire safety measures for hawker stalls and considering ways to further enhance their fire safety.

     FSD has formulated contingency plans for some 20 areas in the territory where old residential and composite buildings are found near closely packed hawker stalls, in order to enhance the efficiency in fire-fighting and rescue operations in case of a fire. To ensure emergency vehicles can pass through smoothly, FSD has also been conducting road tests from time to time in these areas.

(b) After FSD has completed its fire fighting and rescue operation, staff of the BD have inspected the buildings in the vicinity of the fire scene. The inspection revealed that the overall structural stability of these buildings was not affected by the fire and the buildings were still in a structurally sound condition.

     As I said earlier, HD has arranged temporary accommodation in Shek Lei for registered victims on December 4 to address their urgent housing needs. For individual occupants with special difficulties who may need to extend their stay in the temporary accommodation, HD will work with SWD to render them with the appropriate assistance as far as possible based on their specific circumstances. For those who are interested in applying for public rental housing (PRH), HD will assist them in the submission of PRH applications. For those who are already registered on the PRH Waiting List, they would have to wait for the allocation of PRH according to the priority of their registration numbers.

(c) To help the affected residents and family members of the victims cope with immediate needs, the Government has swiftly provided them with financial assistance and offered help in other areas after the fire. First, many charitable organisations and trust funds, including the Jockey Club Emergency Relief Fund, Yan Oi Tong Love and Care Project, Chinese General Chamber of Commerce Charitable Donation, Tung Wah Groups of Hospital, Pok Oi Hospital Emergency Fund, General Chinese Charities Fund, Lok Sin Tong Caring Fund, Sik Sik Yuen Emergency Fund, Yan Chai Emergency Fund, Po Leung Kuk and Hong Kong Young Industrialists Council, promptly offered a helping hand by providing emergency relief fund to address victims' urgent needs. SWD has proactively assisted in distributing financial assistance to all victims expeditiously. Earlier in my reply I have already briefed Members on the details of financial assistance received by individual persons.

     Apart from financial assistance, the Administration has also distributed household electrical appliances and other necessities to victims to address their daily needs. Moreover, SWD has immediately arranged for clinical psychologists and social workers to provide emotional support and sharing sessions for victims.  For households in need, the clinical psychologists and social workers will provide further counselling services.  Colleagues of SWD have contacted the family members of the deceased where possible to provide them with further emotional and financial assistance. With a view to providing family members of the victims and the affected residents with suitable assistance in a timely manner, SWD will continue to follow up on their welfare needs to facilitate their return to normal life as soon as possible.

     As regards the Community Care Fund (CCF), when drawing up assistance programmes, the CCF will consider whether they can complement the assistance and services provided by the Government or other charitable funds so that duplication can be avoided as far as practicable. Having regard to the services and assistance already provided by the Government and other charitable funds to the victims, CCF has no plan to launch relevant assistance programme.

     None of us wish to see this fire happen. The Government has the responsibility to offer proper relief to the families of the deceased and to other fire victims, to conduct a detailed investigation into the cause of the fire, and to consider and discuss possible options with members of the public in order to prevent similar incidents from happening again. I believe that with the concerted efforts of all relevant bureaux and departments, and through soliciting the support of the community, we can duly perform these tasks.

Ends/Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Issued at HKT 13:13

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