How firefighters keep Potala Palace safe

Firefighters of the fire station that protects the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet autonomous region, assemble in front of the site before starting a patrol on March 4. SUN RUIBO/XINHUA

LHASA-For hundreds of years, it had been customary for Tibetan Buddhists to worship in the Potala Palace with butter lamps in their hands.

But for firefighter Champa Chophel, even the smallest flame can be catastrophic for the palace, known as a "pearl on the roof of the world".

Born in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region, Champa Chophel grew up at the foot of the Potala Palace and is now the chief of the fire station that protects the structure.

Firefighters patrol the palace for more than 10 hours a day, with each walking more than 25,000 steps on average. The palace buildings stand as high as 115 meters. Inside the buildings, there are narrow passages and steep stairways, and footprints left by the firefighters cover almost every corner of the palace.

"After the palace closes in the afternoon, we start our patrols with the palace management staff. Every place must be covered to leave no potential danger unattended," Champa Chophel said.

The Potala Palace was built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo (617-650) in the seventh century and expanded in the 17th century. The palace was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994 and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tibet. It holds a collection of valuable scriptures, historical documents and precious relics, including statues, paintings and frescoes.

However, the mainly wood-and-stone buildings and the cultural relics contained inside are fragile. Throughout its history, the Potala Palace has suffered several fires, with the last occurring in June 1984 due to an electrical fault. The day after the fire, a firefighting team was established to protect the palace.

Thanks to the efforts of the firefighters no fire has broken out since.

Firefighters take a physical fitness tests at the station. SUN RUIBO/XINHUA

In recent years, the fire department has taken a range of measures to better ensure safety, including the introduction of a system to detect short circuits and thermal heat-detection technology.

Champa Chophel said in the past firefighters at the palace mainly relied on water and soil. Now, water, powder and fire extinguishers are at the ready to offer the maximum protection for cultural relics.

Considering the unique structure of the palace and its elevation, firefighters have fire hoses in place that can decrease response times by at least five minutes.

As advised by the fire department, thousands of butter lamps in the main buildings of the Potala Palace were moved to a special room near the ground several years ago.

Having served in the team for about 10 years, Champa Chophel said the layout of the palace has long been imprinted on his mind, and he knows the location of every room, passage and piece of equipment.

He said he is so familiar with his work surroundings that guarding the palace is like guarding his own home. "Protecting it has become second nature," he said.