BEIJING — The worst forest fire in China in almost 40 years raged out of control for a 10th day Friday, and there were fears the blaze had sparked an exodus of rats that could spread disease among the thousands of people left homeless by the disaster.
The blaze, the most disastrous in China since the Communist takeover in 1949, has killed at least 168 people and seriously injured 300 others, and destroyed four towns and several villages.
An estimated 34,000 soldiers and civilians were deployed to battle the flames.
But the fire continued to spread through Heilongjiang province, about 900 miles northeast of Beijing, officials said.
"Despite the temporary shortage of materials and food and the threat of disease, troops and firemen are braving the scorching fire, some of them fighting the fire with their bare hands," the official China Daily newspaper said.
The report gave no details of the food or disease problems. But a World Health Organization official in Beijing said infectious diseases are likely to spread because of poor sanitation among the refugees and firefighters.
He said the fire, which has burned 1.36 million acres, has probably forced an exodus of rats that could spread disease among the refugees. A total of 51,000 people have been left homeless, and many were being housed in tents and other temporary shelters.
There was no update Friday on casualties from the blaze, which erupted May 6 in the forest-covered Daxingan mountains. Authorities believe the fire was touched off by a spark from a bush-cutting machine that was leaking oil.
In an indication the death toll could be much higher, China Daily said about 100 people were killed in 15 minutes on May 7 in the small town of Tuqiang alone.
At least 17 medical teams were organized and five "relief stations" set up to handle victims. Trains loaded with relief supplies were heading to the area, the official news media reported. About 1,000 tons of food, 560 tents, 70 prefabricated houses and large quantities of medicine and clothing were sent to the scene. U.N. agencies have offered aid.
The two main sections of the fire, which form a belt almost 200 miles long, closed to within 11 miles of each other Thursday, China Daily reported. Embers in the southeastern section burst into flames again Thursday and the northwestern area spread toward the virgin forest of Huzhong, near the Sino-Soviet border, the newspaper said.