The hard-won battle agianst forest fires and PM2.5 haze has started in this burning season. Credit: Monre

Almost all national parks declared closed against the rise of PM2.5 haze

The newly appointed air pollution administration committee chaired by the Environment Minister has levelled up emergency measures to a maximum level as the air pollution started to climb up to a hazardous level in the North last week

The committee last week resolved to level up the measures and declared a state of emergency against the PM2.5 haze, which had risen in the North since early last week. The stage of emergency was divided into two prime levels; the 24-hour concentration beyond the new hazardous health affecting threshold set at 75 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m³) for three consecutive days, and the 24-hour concentration beyond 150 µg/m³ for five consecutive days. Under the emergency, Governors will command the situation until it is put under control.

The Environment Minister, Pol Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwan, convened a special meeting with forest and forest fire control officials in 17 provinces in the North on Sunday before declaring the latest decision to further the emergency measures to a maximum level. These include a closure of national parks critically encountering severe forest burnings.

According to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), 135 protected forests covering national parks, forest parks, and wildlfe sanctuaries nationwide have already been declared closed as a result, including 11 national parks with large burned scars in the North. 10 forest reserves and fields with large burned scars in the same region have also been declared closed.

Thailand has 156 national parks; both already designated (133) and under preparation (23) areas, 91 forest parks, plus 62 wildlife sanctuaries in total. The closure is considered the most restricted measure against sneakers that are seen causing forest fires. Tight screening at checkpoints around the parks will be undertaken to screen them out and if caught, they will be charged with harsh penalties. So far, five people have been charged for illegally entering the forests in this burning season, according to the DNP.

| Environment Minister Pol Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwan chaired the committee’s meeting last week while his Permanent Secretary Jatuporn Buruspat convened the meeting with his Cambodian counterpart to address transboundary haze. Credit: Monre/ PCD

Other stringent measures include quick forest fire suppression response through forest fire patrolling of integrated military forces. Several officers and volunteers have been sent into the protected forests to camp inside to watch over irregularities. They are instructed to douse the fires quickly before they spread out. War rooms at all levels will be in charge of the situation in their responsible areas and the command will be shifted to Governors when the situation reaches the emergency levels as set.

Monre Permanent Secretary Jatuporn Buruspat said the Cabinet has approved the budget in an emergency, 272 million baht, to support the work already. The estimate by the government’s working group drafting the new Clean Air Act shows forest fire control operations in these critical forests in the North just needed Bt 74 million, but they hardly received it in the past. DNP chief Athapol Charoenshunsa said the new sum of the budget will be used to pay for volunteers who come to help the officers. This, on the other hand, will discourage them from going into the forests and setting forest fires for forest products and compensate them for their income from those products during the burning season. 

Last week, the committee also resolved to use a carrot-and-stick approach on farmers and business entities to discourage them from their regular practices involving fired-based farm production and imports. If cooperating with the government in suppressing the PM2.5 haze from agricultural practices, agribusiness firms will get incentives from the BOI. For farmers who violate the conditions, they will be dismissed from their land use rights in the forests, according to the committee.

| Forest fire control officers have been fighting forest fires hard in the North since last week as fires are lit here and there. Credit: Monre

The coming of PM2.5 haze

Thailand started to encounter PM2.5 haze beyond the new safety limit set at 37.5 µg/m³ in mid-October last year, but it intensified in the city of Bangkok just in the middle of last month, a month delay compared to last year.

The North, which was hit by PM2.5 haze the hardest last year, started to see forest fires early last month before the air pollution climbed up beyond the hazardous level just early this month (last week) when the concentration was beyond 100 µg/m³ for a few days, about one month delay compared to last year as well. Forest fires also hit western forests almost the same period, but they had been placed under control before shifting to the North.

Aside from weather conditions, this one-month delay in the rise of the haze both in the city and in the Northern region is partly due to the attempt of concerned agencies to suppress the haze by tackling its causes seriously this year. 

In the city of Bangkok, major oil production companies were instructed to turn to Euro 5 since January 1, which can help cut PM 2.5 by 20-25% (10 ppm sulphur compared to 50 ppm of sulphur from Euro 4 petrol), according to the Pollution Control Department (PCD). Open burnings around Bangkok were under stringent control and Work from Home was seriously implemented when the situation worsened in the city. 

Bangkok in the thick haze in mid-February. Credit: PCD

Transboundary haze is an accompanying factor that sent the haze to shroud the city and the northern region. It comes from both sides of Myanmar and Cambodia and since early this month Thailand has attempted to work with Cambodia more closely through the new hotlines established between their focal points and the Clear Sky policy. Mr. Jatuporn said the two countries are also working through high-ranking military officials of both countries and relevant mechanisms including the general border committees.

The air pollution in Bangkok improved late last month, but it has since worsened in the North. The PM2.5 haze climbed up beyond the hazardous threshold at 75 µg/m³ last week before touching over 100 µg/m³ for a few days in the middle of the week.

On March 7, for instance, satellites detected up to 3,013 hotspots; 2,255 of them were in the forests alone. Myanmar, meanwhile, found over 6,332 hotspots on the same day. Those numerous hotspots sent the northern region into the haze beyond the hazardous threshold, from 136 µg/m³ recorded in Lamphun province to 179.9 µg/m³ in Lampang, and 201 µg/m³ in Mae Hong Son.

As of March 13, Thailand has detected 60,847 hotspots, or around one-third of the hotspots reported at the end of last year’s burning season (May 31), which stood at around 172,000. Last year’s record on March 31 was reported at 111, 120; 66,070 of which were reported on March 31, according to the PCD.

The PCD has projected that the situation in the North would slightly improve in the next few days but the situation will become worsened again by the end of the week, around March 14 to 17 despite the reduction of hotspots in the areas by 40% compared to last year.

Also read: SPECIAL REPORT: Under the Haze I Demystifying the Flames