Forest fire control officials have been already working hard to win the battles against forest fires in the North, but it’s the war that is hard to win without proportionate and appropriate policy to address their root causes
Pichit Piyachot has won the latest battle, but he cannot totally say that he has won this war; fighting forest fires in the North.
Yesterday, the chief of Mae Ping Forest Fire Control Station reported back to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP) in Bangkok that his team including the special fire control sub-units of Suea Fai (A tiger slapping fires) sent from Phitsanulok and Chumporn provinces managed to douse forest fires, which had burned over 150 rai of the Mae Ping National Park, which spans over parts of Chiang Mai, Lam Phun, and Tak provinces.
In fact, the chief’s team last week managed to protect the prime watershed inside the national park, which narrowly survived the fires that had burned its vast and iconic grass field locally known as Thung Kik.
The chief has won the battles, but not yet the war against the fires. The fact is the fires were started from uncontrolled “human activities” and that the fuels in the park were almost gone as they were almost burned down. According to Fah Phoon Facebook Page, which is run by an independent aero engineering expert to dedicate its space for PM2.5 analyses, the scope of over 400 square kilometres or over 250,000 rai of the national park was burned by forest fires since early last month, and if assuming that up to 60% of the area was seriously burned down, it’s already the size of the burn scars that occurred over the last two years, or around 150,000 rai!
Since the “fire season” started in the region, which has seriously been suffering from forest fires and PM2.5 in recent years, officials concerned have put efforts to prevent the forest fires by undertaking pre-season fire management starting around mid-January. But as analysed by the page, which has been following up on the situation daily based on reliable satellite data sources including GISTDA, the poor regulation of the state fire management including pre-season forest burning and forest firebreaks rather triggered uncontrolled fires by local people, who rushed to imitate the officials’ action for their own purposes; clearing the forests for forest product collection, wildlife hunting, and others (Some even said these included the revenge and opposing expressions against the state fire control measures!).
The Pollution Control Department (PCD) in mid-February started to report the impacts of the uncontrolled forest fires that by then the PM2.5 haze was polluting the region to the level that it had affected people’s health. On Feb 16, for instance, the PM2.5 concentration level in the region shot up to 192 µg/m³, far beyond the safety limit set at 50 µg/m³.
According to Dr. Pinsak Suraswadi, the PCD’s Director-General, the northern region had actually started to feel the impact of PM2.5 since late January, and since, the dust concentration level had been increasing over time because of increasing forest fires in the region.
Based on the department’s data analysis, 18,988 hotspots occurred over one and a half months between Jan 1 to Feb 15. This increased from the number of hotspots recorded during the same period of time last year up to 118% (8,698 recorded last year). The number of days with dust levels beyond the limit also increased by 72% compared to last year, or 31 compared to 18 days. And the 24-hour dust concentration level was also 67% higher, or 45 µg/m³ compared to 27 µg/m³.
Over 70% of those hotspots were forest fires; half of these were found in protected forest areas and the other half in forest reserves, the department confirmed.
The DNP realised the situation too. Under the new directive of its acting Director General Athapol Charoenshunsa, 455 fire control officers as well as 225 Suea Fai officers who are specially trained to control forest fires in difficult situations were called in around the middle of last month to help suppress the fires in the region, of which at least 15 protected areas including Mae Ping in 17 northern provinces were the forests with burn scars. Mae Ping is the second most severely burned protected area in this group.
As a chief of the forest control station in the area, Mr. Pichit realised well how tough it was to suppress those fires. Day in and day out since early February, they have been teaming up with Suea Fai and local networks to extinguish the fires against almost inaccessible landscapes. The chief himself has lost five men of his to the fires over the past years, and he was close to tears when recalling those fallen officers and had to stop short of saying more about them.
In some recent battles, the chief has actually lost. In one event, they mobilised the team to suppress the fires that were burning one side of Thung Kik to the point that his men had to raise the white flag. “They are coming fast and we cannot blow these dried leaves up to block them. We need to retreat to the next stream and there we will try to push them back again,” said one of his men to the chief, who by then had to accept his subordinate’s recommendation for the sake of their safety with a facial expression of disappointment.
As for the DNP, it has declared closure of 79 protected areas in an attempt to suppress “human activities” that are closely linked to locals’ livelihoods and economy amid a growing call for proportionate and appropriate policy to help address these deep-rooted causes of the fires, or they will never win this war.
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