THAILAND – CHIANG MAI — Local authorities are too underfunded and uncoordinated to deal with a massive outbreak of wildfires in the northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, which already claimed the lives of five firefighters, volunteers said.
Chatchawan Thongdeelert, a co-founder of an umbrella organization called Council for Chiang Mai Breathing, said efforts to fight the wildfires need more coordination and money. The group, comprising over 100 local NGOs and communities, was formed after many residents concluded the government alone cannot be relied on, Chatchawan said.
“Some said this can’t go on and they cannot let government agencies alone handle it,” he said.
Chatchawan said different government agencies only act to protect their own assigned areas from fire, and there is no attempt to integrate the efforts to deal with the wildfire, which is more severe this year as the dry season came early. Wildfire in the north normally starts in February or March.
The situation will likely persist through May, the activist said.
Currently, 20 out of 25 districts in Chiang Mai have reported wildfires, with the most visible one raging on Doi Suthep, next to Chiang Mai City. At least five people have died while trying to contain the fire.
As a result, air quality in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are now among the worst in the world, according to several reports.
Chatchawan attributed the factors to global warming and farmers, particularly those employed by large agricultural firms, who engage in open crop burning.
Former deputy leader of the disbanded Future Forward Party Chamnan Chanruang, a Chiang Mai native, said local authorities should be more empowered to make appropriate decisions and take actions.
“It’s happening in Chiang Mai, not Bangkok,” he said. “The national government thinks Thailand is just Bangkok. Not only that powers concentrate in Bangkok but Chiang Mai administrators lack powers.”
In neighboring Chiang Rai province where wildfire is also spreading, activist Sombat Boonngam-anong has been leading a volunteer group fighting fire on a mountain on Doi Jarakae for three weeks now.
He said local government agencies are poorly funded and not planning or working together.
Sombat said the authorities made no attempt to fly a drone and seek out precise locations of the fires, so his own organization had to obtain a drone and assist the officials, despite the fact that everyone knew the wildfires are a recurring problem each year.
He said local state agencies have been asking for funds to buy more equipment for two years, but nothing has arrived.