A ranger tried to douse fire in Oob Luang National Park in Hod district, Chiang Mai, a few days ago. Photo courtesy of DNP

PM2.5 haze choking the North

Hotspots in forest areas in the region have been widely detected, prompting officials concerned to declare an extreme measure of closure of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries with high numbers of hotspots

It’s just early this month that the capital of Bangkok experienced the impact of PM2.5 haze before the situation improved due to the improving weather. The problem has now shifted to the North following its fire season and becomes severe this week as a result of the increasing hotspots in forest areas in the region.

The Pollution Control Department (PCD), which has been monitoring the pollution, said the PM2.5 haze is now blanketing the North and polluting it to the level that it’s affecting people’s health. According to the department, the fine dust concentration level that will start to “affect health” is set beyond 90 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³), and a number of areas in the North are now experiencing this.

As of today, the dust concentration levels in 24 hours are measured between 31 to 192 µg/m³, prompting 26 areas at least to have the dust beyond the safety limit, set at 50 µg/m³. The highest level is in Hod district of Chiang Mai province.

According to Dr. Pinsak Suraswadi, the PCD’s Director-General, the region started to feel the impact of PM2.5 in late January, and since, the dust concentration level has been increasing over time because of increasing forest fires in the region.

Based on the department’s data analysis, 18,988 hotspots occurred between Jan 1 to Feb 15. This has 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 has also increased by 72% compared to last year, or 31 compared to 18 days. And the 24-hour dust concentration level this year is also 67% higher, or 45 µg/m³ compared to 27 µg/m³.

The department has learned that over 70%of hotspots in the North are forest fires; half of them are found in protected forest areas and the other half in forest reserves. As of today, additional 793 hotspots have been detected; 744 or over 93% of them are in forest areas. And the accumulative number of hotspots has stood at 19,781.

l Courtesy of PCD

Dr. Pinsak said the situation will remain severe for at least until Feb 22, and the trend could last until the end of this month.

“As projected, the situation will be severe this year, and it is because of the return of social and economic activities. The dust started to affect people’s health in the region in late January and will be more severe probably until the end of this month,” said Dr. Pinsak.

Dr. Pinsak stressed that the prime sources of the current PM2.5 haze in the region are forest fires within the country. The department has analysed the impact of those found in neighbouring countries and learned that although the number of hotspots in some countries has increased, 147% in Myanmar for instance, the winds have rather blown northwards, not southwards or southeastwards, thus not directly affecting the country as first thought.

l Park rangers tried to douse fires that erupted in several areas in the North a few days ago. Seen in the photos are Pai Watershed-Salween Wildlife Sanctuary in Mae Hong Son province and Viang Kosai National Park in Lampang province. Photos courtesy of DNP

Realising the situation, the Environment Ministry has instructed concerned agencies to step up their measures against the increasing forest fires and hotspots, according to Dr. Pinsak.

Aside from fire controls and forest fuel management before the season started, the Department of National Parks has called on its special firefighter unit, Suea Fai, to be on standby and to work along with local volunteers. Drones and GIS technology are deployed to help them accomplish their work. 

Last but not least, at least eight parks and wildlife sanctuaries will be closed to public entry, except for some tourism spots in the areas. They are Pai Watershed, Mae Tuen, and Om Koi Wildlife Sanctuaries, as well as Pha Daeng, Pha Thai Cave, Oob Luang, Mae Ping, and Sri Nan National Parks.

The Royal Forestry Department is also working with local authorities and contemplating on closing some entrances of forest reserves as part of the stepped-up measures, Dr. Pinsak said.

DNP’s acting chief Athapol Charoenshunsa, meanwhile, said forest fires are human-driven. On the department’s FB page, he has issued a warning to firestarters to stay away from causing forest fires or they will face harsh penalties, which could send them to jail for up to 20 years or/and a fine of up to two million baht, stressing that over 100 cases are prosecuted every year on average. His warning signals how serious the department is in suppressing those causing forest fires.

Thailand has been experiencing haze seriously over the past three or four years since it first came up with better air pollution measurements, which exposed exceeding levels of dust particles that are harmful to people’s health like PM2.5 both in the capital and other regions.

Since, the issue has been addressed as a national agenda, which directs comprehensive planning aimed at tackling the sources of the pollution, which are different among regions. For instance, in the capital, the main sources of PM2.5 haze are incomplete combustion of car engines, especially diesel-based vehicles, intensive construction, as well as pre-harvest burning of farm leftovers in provinces in the Central Plains. In the North, on the other hand, the main sources of the pollution are farm clearing and forest burning, which largely involve traditional livelihood of local people there.

The situation is often exacerbated by bad weather created by an air inversion, under which a warmer air overlays the cold air and acts as a lid while the air underneath becomes stagnant, thus trapping the pollution below.

In spite of the national agenda and plans, the country is still struggling with PM2.5 haze, which has apparently gone from bad to worse.