Thailand is under attack by another extreme natural disaster _ forest fires, which have flared up almost 3,000 times and damaged more than 65,000 rai of timbered land in the past four months.
The annual blazes are likely to devastate the tropical forest for at least another three months. The wet season was due in June.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suvit Khunkitti yesterday called on villagers living near forests, people who collect forest products, and campers to refrain from setting fires of any kind in forest areas.
Mr Suvit on Friday made an inspection trip to Huay Kha Kaeng wildlife sanctuary in Uthai Thani province, where a forest fire was burning. The spreading blaze was likely to be under control in a few days, he said.
Forest firefighters have been sent to all hot-spot areas, where the danger was high, including the western forest complex and forests in the North and Northeast.
The Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation last October warned that this year’s forest fire season was likely to start earlier than normal and last longer, until June.
Based on reports from the United States Climate Prediction Centre, the department also predicts this year’s forest fires would be the most severe since 1998 due to the El Nino weather phenomenon that brings drought to many Asia-Pacific countries.
Accumulation of dry leaves, branches and grass over the years would also worsen the situation.
The Southeast Asia Fire Danger Rating System currently ranks Thailand as “extreme”, which means the risk of fire is high and that when they occur the flames are likely to be fierce and difficult to control. It recommends large fire control breaks and that complete burning restrictions be put in place.
The system also detects disaster-level drought conditions in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the north Philippines.
The system is part of the Regional Haze Action Plan, started by Southeast Asian environment ministers after extensive forest fires in Indonesia caused widespread haze in the region in 1997 and 1998.
Run by the Malaysian Meteorological Service, the system monitors and issues warnings about forest fires in the region.
In Chiang Mai, a local environmentalist said he was seeing more serious and frequent forest fires than last year.
“The sky is always covered with haze. Most natural streams run dry because the fires have dried up ground water sources in the forest. Water shortage is the most serious problem during the forest fire season,” said Nikhom Puttha, a leader of a conservation group in Chiang Dao district.
He said the department failed to improve its forest fire control services, which avoided working with local communities.
“The department should work harder in seeking cooperation from the local people in complying with the government’s ban on burning activities in the dry season.”
Villagers’ burning activities were a major cause of forest fires in the North, said Mr Nikhom.