Northern province a hazy disaster zone

Northernprovince a hazy disaster zone

14 March 2007

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Thailand — Chiang Rai province has been declared a disaster area asembattled provincial and other agencies confronted out-of-control brush andforest fires that have left smog and smoke hanging over northern Thailand.

Chiang Rai Governor Amornpan Nimanant declared natural disaster areas in 16districts and two subdistricts because of the smog.

He did not immediately say what his plans were. But declaring a disaster meanshe can dispense aid on an emergency basis, with little paperwork or involvementby the central government.

There is widespread criticism of the cabinet decision on Tuesday to give thesmog problem another week to clear up before the government takes any action.

Traditionally, before the rains and at the end of the hot, dry season, localfarmers in the mountains burn off the preceding season’s accumulation ofvegetation to provide nutrients for the soil.

This year, however, the region has been especially dry, and vulnerable, tohaving such fires spread out of control.

Together with burn-off fires moving east and south from neighbouring Myanmar’sShan State, Thailand is besieged with conflagrations and smoke accumulation overa wide area of the region, and is on the edge of declaring an emergency zone inthe northern provinces due to spreading clouds of choking smoke, clogged withdust and micro-particles of partially-burned wood, leaves and other vegetationfed by raging brushfires and forest fires.

Government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp announced Tuesday that the NationalEnvironment Preservation Act of 1992 might be implemented to cope with currentwidespread air pollution from brushfires and the burning of seasonal groundcoverin the forests to the extent that part or all of the 17 northern provinces maybe declared an emergency or hazardous zone.

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation is recruitingpersonnel to promptly extinguish forest blazes in those northern areas, and thatspecial clinics may be set up on location to care for persons having illnessesrelated to the acrid forest smoke, the government spokesman said.

The authorities, including officials of the Public Health Ministry, theAgriculture and Cooperatives Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the NaturalResources and Environment Ministry, were prohibiting local villagers in theregion – especially poachers – from attempting to clear weeds and undergrowth,as well as forests, by setting them on fire.

Mr Yongyuth said some officials had suggested forest smoke should be cleared byartificial rain but technical experts at the Agriculture and CooperativesMinistry commented that they would have difficulties making artificial rainunder the current dry weather conditions in the North.

The cabinet instructed local authorities to remain alert and to contain forestfires from March until June, during which an El Nino phenomenon is expected tobring drought to arid places.

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