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Million-dollar anti-fire system failed to prevent blaze that ravaged China tourist town

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BEIJING, China - A fire prevention system costing more than $1 million wasn't functioning and failed to prevent a blaze that razed an ancient tourist town in southwest China, the fire service said Monday.

The system in Dukezong had been shut down to prevent pipes from bursting in the below-freezing temperatures, the Deqen prefecture fire brigade said on its microblog. The service said the system was installed in 2011 at a cost of 8 million yuan ($1.3 million).

In addition to the system's failure, the freezing temperatures lowered water pressure in hydrants when the fire broke out at about 1:30 a.m. Saturday. The wooden houses burned quickly, while fire trucks were unable to penetrate narrow streets and alleys.

The official Xinhua News Agency said investigators had determined that the fire started at the local Ruyi Inn when a faulty electrical outlet set a curtain on fire.

Tourism is virtually the only industry in the traditional Tibetan region. The ancient Tibetan quarter of Dukezong dates back more than 1,000 years and is known for its preserved cobbled streets, ancient structures and Tibetan culture.

The fire raged for nearly 10 hours and destroyed 242 structures. About 2,600 people were left homeless, although no casualties were reported. The blaze started in a guesthouse and has been ruled accidental.

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.

Reached by phone Monday, a 36-year-old businessman who lost his bookshop and convenience store in the fire said the business community would likely rebuild with government help.

"Travel is really the only industry here. It's irreplaceable," said the man, who identified himself only by his surname, Pan.

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