China fights brush fires, extends power rationing in drought

BEIJING (AP) — Brush fires have forced the evacuation of more than 1,500 people in southwest China and power rationing for factories has reportedly been extended as weeks of record heat and drought batter the region.

Some shopping malls in the megacity of Chongqing have been ordered closed for most of the day to reduce electricity demand, state broadcaster CCTV said, limiting opening hours to 4 to 9 p.m.

The drought and heat have wilted crops and caused rivers including the giant Yangtze to shrink, disrupting cargo traffic and reducing power supply from hydroelectric dams at a time of soaring demand for air conditioning. State media say the government will try to protect the autumn grain harvest, which is 75% of China’s annual total, by shooting chemicals into clouds to try to generate rain.

The disruption adds to challenges for the ruling Communist Party, which is trying to shore up sagging economic growth before a meeting this fall at which President Xi Jinping is expected to be given a third five-year term as party leader.

There was no public announcement of the extension of power rationing in Sichuan province into a second week, but it was detailed in a company statement and a government notice to companies that was reported by Chinese news outlets.

The “tense situation” of power supplies in Sichuan province “has further intensified,” Tencent News said Monday in a report that included a photo of the government notice.

LIER Chemical Co. said in an announcement through the stock exchange in the southern city of Shenzhen that its facilities in the cities of Jinyang and Guang’an in Sichuan received an order extending power rationing through Thursday.

Factories in Sichuan that make processor chips, solar panels, auto components and other industrial goods were required to shut down or reduce activity last week to conserve power for homes as air conditioning demand surged in temperatures as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Air conditioning, elevators and lights were shut off in offices and shopping malls.

In Shanghai, a factory and shipping hub on China’s east coast, Tesla Ltd. and a major state-owned automaker suspended production last week due to disruption in supplies of components from Sichuan, the Shanghai city government said.

Sichuan, with 94 million people, is especially hard-hit because it gets 80% of its power from hydroelectric dams. Other provinces rely more on coal-fired power, which isn’t affected.

Economists say if Sichuan reopens relatively soon, the national impact should be limited because the province accounts for only 4% of China’s industrial output.

The Chinese government says this summer is China’s hottest and driest since it began keeping temperature and rainfall records in 1961. Temperatures have exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for the past week and longer.

Brush fires in outlying areas of Chongqing, which borders Sichuan, are the latest scourge resulting from the heat and drought.

More than 1,500 residents had been moved to shelters, while around 5,000 civilian and military personnel had been mobilized to put out the blazes, the official Xinhua News Agency said Monday.

Helicopters have been sent to drop water on the fires, supporting crews on the ground who have in the past been left to their own resources.

In 2019, a wildfire in the mountains of Sichuan province killed 30 firefighters and volunteers.

No deaths have yet been reported as a result of the heat wave, Xinhua said, although that could not be independently verified.

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