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A blaze caused by festive firecrackers raged through an ancient city gate in northern Hebei Province Thursday, almost destroying the historic building and raising safety concerns over the centuries-old Chinese lunar new year ritual, a year after fireworks consumed a China Central Television (CCTV) tower in Beijing.
Hundreds of injuries and a string of fires have been reported across the country since last Saturday, Chinese New Year's eve, renewing calls for a fireworks ban, one of the main characteristics of the annual lunar festival. Residents of major cities are only allowed to set off fireworks during the Spring Festival period in authorized areas.
The wooden gatehouse in Zhengding County, Hebei, originally built in the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), was engulfed by fire Thursday night and authorities said fireworks were to blame.
"Our preliminary investigation shows that the fire was caused by fireworks or Kongming lanterns. The fire has been put out. The government is now working on a plan of renovation," Cao Haitao, spokesman of Zhengding county, told the Global Times.
At least 17 fire engines managed to distinguish the fire after nearly four hours, the China News Agency reported. The fire gutted the top floor and the foundation floor was severely damaged.
An official from the Zhengding cultural relics bureau surnamed Wang said that the gate tower has to be rebuilt. Local authorities spent 4 million yuan rebuilding the gate in 2001, the bureau said.
Wang said officials would tighten security measures around cultural relics and keep fireworks 100 meters away.
At Shichahai, a bar area in downtown Beijing, a blaze ripped through two bars, including one called "Earth and Fire," Wednesday. Fireworks set off by tourists were said to be the cause of the fire. There were no reports of casualties.
Up until Friday, Beijing reported 90 fires caused by fireworks and 347 injuries, according to the Beijing Youth Daily.
In the Chongqing municipality, 131 fires caused by fireworks were reported on Chinese New Year's eve.
In Xupu county, Hunan Province, three firefighters died rescuing people from a fire caused by fireworks.
Earlier this month, 71 people were charged with causing the blaze that torched the 30-story north wing of the new CCTV building in Beijing on February 9, 2009. The fire, caused by the illegal lighting of fireworks, killed one firefighter and led to 164 million yuan ($24.1 million) in economic losses.
Data provided by Environmental Monitoring of China shows that Sunday was the most polluted day of the month in Beijing. Aside from air pollution, firework debris littered streets, provoking complaints from residents.
"Setting off fireworks is not only dangerous but also messy. It also encourages unhealthy social conduct. Many of my neighbors set off fireworks to show their wealth," Yu Zhan, a Beijing resident, said.
For over 2,000 years, fireworks have been an iconic part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. However, some Chinese have called on the government to reinstate a firework ban, while others advocate embracing the tradition.
In 2005, Beijing lifted a 12-year ban on public fireworks and put restrictions on firework displays. According to the current regulation, firecrackers within the Fifth Ring Road are only allowed in the 15 days from Chinese New Year's eve.
Tao Dongfeng, at Capital Normal University, said he is supportive of fireworks, saying it is worth respecting as a cultural tradition.
"I know there are injuries, deaths or fires, but we can't give up eating for the risk of choking," he said.
It is unreasonable to impose a ban on fireworks because it is a symbolic representation of the festivity, he said, adding that casualties are common during celebrations across the globe.
Zhang Yiwu, with the Cultural Resources Research Center of Peking University, said the government faces a dilemma in striking a balance between those who are for banning fireworks and those who are against a ban.
Shen Jie, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the current regulations do not sufficiently regulate firework-related behavior.
"Those regulations can't help eliminate injuries and deaths. The government could make fireworks safer with the use of technology," he said.
Beijing banned public fireworks in 1993 due to a rise in accidents. More than 280 cities including Shanghai and Guangzhou enacted similar bans.
However, the ban angered those who believe that, without fireworks, the Chinese New Year would lose its identity.
There are also economic reasons. China is the world's largest firework manufacturer and exporter, with thousands of firework companies, including numerous illegal ones, employing millions of workers and producing 45 million boxes of fireworks each year, 40 percent of which are exported.
Hunan is the largest firework-producing province in China, with more than 2,000 companies employing 500,000 people and generating 5 billion yuan in annual sales.
Xing Dingyin, sales manager with the Beijing branch of the Liuyang-based Panda Fireworks, told the Global Times that humans are to be blamed for the casualties rather than the fireworks themselves.
"Consumers always expect fireworks to provide wonderful displays, but sometimes they buy them some from unlicensed stores," he said.