The new fire sparked on April 13 and posed a new threat to the mountaintop of Doi Luang Chiang Dao before being successfully suppressed in the next two days. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Doi Luang Chiang Dao under threat of “wild” fires

Concerned officials remain watchful until the fire season ends in the next month in a bid to save this Unesco’s new Biosphere Reserve while calling for serious discussion and solutions at the policy level to address the problems

As part of the Northern forest where forest utilisation is being extensively competed among various stakeholders this year, Doi Chiang Dao or locally known as Doi Luang Chiang Dao, which was designated as the latest UN Biosphere Reserve in 2021, has become under severe threat of “wild” fires.

According to the officials in charge of forest fire control in the area, the number of hotspots at Doi Luang Chiang Dao this year has skyrocketed, from tens of them recorded last year to over 500 already. The fact is the season has yet to end and they have to remain watchful for possible fires until it ends around the middle of next month.

Niwat Boonmawong, a chief at Chiang Dao Forest Fire Control Station, said the weather this year is generally dry and the rains become absent in contrast to their usual presence ahead of Song Kran days (Thai New Year holidays). Over the past few years when the country was closed down due to Covid-19 and almost all activities had been down accordingly, in addition to the La Nina period, fuels in the Northern forests have been extensively accumulated in the area, enabling forest fires to become more severe than usual when sparked.

But more critically, some persistent activities which could prompt fires in the forests remain ineffectively unresolved, he said. 

“Our critical challenge is how we can introduce the firebreaks in people’s hearts,” said Mr. Niwat.

The forest fires spread into the residents’ fields around Doi Luang Chiang Dao during Song Kran.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

As explained by Mr. Niwat and other officials there, people in the mountainous area extensively have plots of land overlapping with the protected forest patches of the sanctuary. They normally grow basic crops but things have also changed in recent years as many of them have turned to growing maize to sell them to merchants outside.

Every year, they need to burn their fields to prepare them for the next crop season, and this must be done before the rains come. In Chaing Mai, a new system of Fire D or “a good fire” has been introduced to reach a compromise. Owners of the fields need to register to get permission to burn their fields. This hopefully helps cut back the PM2.5 haze.

The queue was set to start from the southern part of the province, but there was very intense haze since the start, prompting the governor to declare the extreme measure of zero burning in an attempt to put down the increasingly choking haze. As the deadline drew near, set at February 15, people instead rushed to burn their fields simultaneously, thus worsening the situation.

For those living in the northern part of the province like those in the Chiang Dao district, they decided to trick the officials by burning the forests around to get the fires to burn their fields all along.

“Things became a bit out of control as we could not supervise their field burnings as we did. We may need to sit down and discuss our implementation of the system. There is no need to wait for one another to finish. Several areas can be done at the same time if they are ready. Fires in control are far better than uncontrolled fires, and I trust that the haze will be kept under control if we can control the fires,” Mr. Niwat said of his experience of fire control in the area.

As checked through satellite images by Ponnarin Khumthong, a new chief at the sanctuary, who is in charge of the overall forest fire suppression operation there, around 30-50% of the hotspots that have occurred in his responsible area are involved with the field burning activity. 

Officers from the task force fought fires that broke consecutively on Doi Luang Chiang Dao during the Song Kran festival.
Photos: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The fires within

On the other side of the mountain, a young forest fire control officer, Yiw or Witthaya Phasop, along with some tens of his peers and colleagues from the sanctuary and the military units had run back and forth between their camp at the Huay Mae Kok wildlife station deep in the mountain inside the sanctuary and the mountaintop to try to douse the fires, which broke once around April 4, and again during Song Kran. 

If the fires burned up to the top of the mountain, locally known as Ang Salung, what is most feared is the country’s sole sub-alpine ecosystem would be burnt beyond recovery as it’s so fragile.

It took them two days before they managed to douse the fire in the first round, but it took them several more days during the fresh round of the fire that broke on April 12. The fire was started somewhere on the foot of the mountain before it climbed up high and was beyond their previous fire breaks, forcing them to get through the fires to put a new firebreak in front of it before it could reach the mountaintop. Fortunately, they managed to do so in the early hours of April 13, just to learn afterwards the fire headed back to their camp.

The team spent almost another day dousing the fire around their camp, just to learn later that there was another fire set on the foot on the other side of the mountain, prompting them to rush to put another firebreak to protect the path leading to the mountaintop.

For Mr. Ponnarin, these incidents were too obvious and very unusual. Since he took the office in late March, Mr. Ponnarin said he has encountered such an apparently intentional fire setting five or six times already. The latest one set on April 14 was near his own office.

The fires ravaged the back of Doi Luang Chiang Dao and climbed up near the mountaintop on April 14.
Videos: Bangkok Tribune

Officials there know well that besides field burnings, wildlife hunting, and forest product collection, internal conflict could trigger fires that pose a threat to their forests. Aside from forest-based livelihoods, Doi Chiang Dao has long been a tourist magnet. Some villages have advantages on this front while others have not, and this has prompted conflict among the residents.

Some officials who are close to the issue said this reflects how the management of forest utilisation is not in balance yet and it needs to get serious discussion among all concerned.

“Or we will see our forests burnt and we cannot do anything much like this once they get burnt,” said a senior official at the sanctuary.

So far, Mr. Ponnarin has introduced the second phase of the Save Doi Luang Chiang Dao program to step up surveillance against possible fires. Daily patrols of the joint task force of his men and the military officers are being conducted intensively in the area, and some officers have been deployed to guard the path that leads to the mountaintop. In the long term, Mr. Ponnarin said his office will discuss with people living around the sanctuary in order to come up with proper management of their forest utilisation.

Mr. Niwat agreed. He said all these problems need to be addressed among all concerned and rules and regulations that all accept must be established to help strike a balance of forest utilisation and conservation and tackle the forest fires and haze problem.

“In some years, they conflict with us, while in other years, they conflict with one another. We need to put things on the table and talk,” said Mr. Niwat.

A forest fire control volunteer got lost as the fires fell back and drew near his village of Na Lao Mai on April 15.
Photo: Bangkok Tribune

Unesco’s Biosphere Reserve

In late 2021, the International Co-ordinating Council of the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme under UNESCO held its 33rd session online from Nigeria’s Abuja and decided to designate Thailand’s “Doi Chiang Dao” as its new Biosphere Reserve along with some other 22 sites around the world. 

These sites including Doi Chiang Dao have been added to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, which has 714 biosphere reserves in 129 countries, including 21 transboundary sites.

Apart from World Heritage Sites, UNESCO also promotes this Man and Biosphere Programme, under which sites demonstrating the good linkage between the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable use of humans will be designated as Biosphere Reserves.

As explained by UNESCO, they are “learning areas for sustainable development under diverse ecological, social, and economic contexts, touching the lives of more than 250 million people”.

“They are sites for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity.

“They are places that provide local solutions to global challenges,” notes UNESCO.

Normally, Biosphere Reserves are nominated by national governments and designated under the intergovernmental MAB Programme by the Director-General of UNESCO following the decisions of the MAB International Coordinating Council (MAB ICC) if meeting the criteria.

Doi Chiang Dao had been nominated by Thailand three or four years before becoming the Biosphere Reserve. It is the country’s fifth after Ranong Biosphere Reserve, which was designated in 1997. The other three previously designated reserves are Sakaerat Environmental Research Station (1976), Hauy Tak Teak Biosphere Reserve (1977), and Mae Sa-Kog Ma Biosphere Reserve (1977).

Valuable resources on Doi Luang Chiang Dao including rare gorals. Credit: DNP

Located in Chiang Dao district of Chiang Mai Province, it is the only region in Thailand covered with sub-alpine vegetation found in the Himalayas and down through the southern part of China, according to the International Advisory Committee for Biosphere Reserves (IACBR).

The core areas, which account for 41.92% of the total area (proposed at over 536,900 rai), have been strictly protected as the Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary for more than 40 years. The north-western tip of the core area, which is not surrounded by a buffer zone or transition area, borders the Pha Daeng National Park. It’s home to rare and preserved animals including gorals and serows, plus over 670 species of wild animals.

The buffer zones consist mostly of secondary forest and reforested areas, belonging to the Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary, the Chiang Dao National Reserve Forest, and areas designated for agricultural land reform. These areas are targeted for ecologically friendly economic activities, the committee noted.

One of the two transition areas is located at the eastern end of the site; the other is surrounded by the western section of the buffer zones. Both areas are administrated by regional and local authorities.

Following its limestone formations, rains have infiltrated through and created a number of caves, and the largest and most important of these is Chiang Dao Cave. The cave, however, houses a Buddhist temple in the Lanna style and is a place where the legend of Chao Luang Chiang Dao originated, thus being revered as a sacred place.

Meanwhile, numerous underground creeks converge to form the Ping River to the east of the proposed site, and there is a traditional gravity-based irrigation system called Maung Fai, which is also a notable feature of the area. Such numerous examples of these have been maintained by local practices and knowledge over almost 800 years, the committee noted.

The site is also an eco-tourism destination with natural and cultural activities in the Chiang Dao Cave and the Yang Pu Toh Hot Spring, as well as birdwatching along the Mae Kong River.

The committee said it acknowledged that the conceptual framework of the biosphere reserve management is consistent with the existing plans of the districts, sub-districts and the Sanctuary and took note of a policy of payment for ecosystem services (PES) operating in the southern buffer zone.

A forest village of Ban Pang Ma-O sells branded forest-shade coffee, the packaging of which informs buyers that their purchase helps maintain the forest, which provides water-regulating services for the Ping River.

“The proposed site presents a good model for visitor impact management, which can be as a reference for other fragile ecosystem destinations.

“Previously, the summit of Doi Luang Chiang Dao and the opium fields were subject to high visitor numbers. At present, only nature research visits are permitted on the summit and are regulated by strict controls and impact mitigation measures. The summit is also well managed with zero waste,” the committee pointed out.

It, therefore, recommended that the site be approved, the recommendation which was endorsed by the MAB ICC in mid-September, 2021.

Mr. Ponnarin instructed his men to handle fires with utmost safety. He said a lot more actually needed to be done ahead of the fire season.
Photo: Bangkok Tribune

The latest fire incidents in Doi Luang Chiang Dao are seen by several observers as a new challenge to its UN status and an example of how complicated the forest fires and the haze problem in the region are. Recently, they have called for a review of the national action plan to address the problems in the region as it fell far short of what needs to be done here.

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