SAMOENG, Thailand: Under a shroud of thick, black smoke, the hill is ablaze.
Men in red uniforms snake through a burning forest in single file, searching for the source of the ferocious fire that has engulfed a large part of the hill in Samoeng district of western Chiang Mai – a northern Thai province that recently reported the worst air quality in the world.
“It’s more severe than previous years because the fuel – all the dry leaves and plants – had accumulated for a few years without burning. This year is dry. There is no rain and little humidity. So when the fuel ignites, it’s harder to control,” said Amphon Kanchan from the Khun Kan-Samoeng forest fire station.
For nearly two months, the firefighter has been on the front line of the ongoing battle against the burning forests in the mountainous province, which currently reports “hazardous” levels of air quality on the Air Quality Index. Some of them are a result of the drought and scorching heat while others were caused by crop burning – a common method used by farmers to clear farmland.
“Samoeng is a very difficult area. The terrain is high, steep and full of stony cliffs. Sometimes we have to cut pieces of wood and stick them in the ground for support as we climb,” Amphon said.
Every day, the firefighter leaves the station at 6am for various hot spots. Work is normally finished by 10pm but sometimes it drags on until the small hours of the morning - often without a meal break.
"If we don’t finish work, we can’t go back down."
Between Jan 1 and Apr 4, 6,437 hot spots were reported in nine provinces in northern Thailand. Data from the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency shows Chiang Mai has the highest number of hot spots – 1,299 – followed by 1,174 in Mae Hong Son, 975 in Nan, 798 in Lampang, 644 in Tak, 554 in Chiang Rai, 379 in Phrae, 341 in Phayao and 282 in Lamphun.
These hot spots have resulted in a haze crisis which prompted Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to fly Chiang Mai earlier this week to address the situation.
“I would like everybody to be determined in solving and alleviating the problem within seven days,” he said on Tuesday.
We all have to accept the situation is still severe.
On Friday, Chiang Mai recorded a “very unhealthy” PM2.5 air quality index reading of 293. On some days, it has been much worse. PM2.5 are micro particles with a diametre of less than 2.5 micrometres or about 3 per cent the diametre of a human hair.
The particles are one of the deadliest forms of air pollution and can penetrate deep inside the lungs, where they either remain for long periods or pass into the blood stream unfiltered. Long-term exposure to these particles can result in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and cancers.
A lot of them fill Chiang Mai’s air but only a handful of residents are aware of their existence or the danger they could pose.
"I don’t wear a face mask because I can’t breathe properly with it,” said Urai Khiewmoon, a Chiang Mai resident. “But I don’t have any health problem.”
Instead of wearing a face mask that filters PM2.5 particles, Urai chooses to stay indoors when the air gets bad and so do her neighbours – the elderly, parents and young children.
But even if the tiny particles cannot be seen, the smoke which carries their potentially deadly threat is very visible. Venturing out on the worst days means walking through choking, dense clouds of smoke. The smell of the burning forests hangs heavy in the air, and staying outside for very long is unpleasant at best. At worst, it is a physical challenge.
A DANGEROUS JOB WITH NO PROTECTION
On the burning hill, the firefighters have split into two groups to control the flames from different directions. They use little water simply because most parts of the hill are too high for a water truck to reach. Instead, they use brooms made of bamboo trunks to sweep dry leaves and grass – the fuel – away from the flames to create a firebreak.
If the fire is 3 metres high, Amphon said the gap needs to be at least 8 metres wide. However, the process has to be done gradually by firefighters, who usually work together in a team of 15 people.
“When the first person has separated the fuel from the fire, the second one comes in to widen the gap. Then the third and the fourth persons make it even wider. The fifth and the sixth persons are responsible for checking the firebreak to ensure no branch or leaf is left behind,” he explained.
“We can’t separate the fuel from the fire right away. Otherwise, the flames could jump across the gap."
From day until night, firefighters have to work in searing heat on steep and dangerous terrain. But despite their perilous tasks, they hardly have any protection. In Chiang Mai, the likes of Amphon wear a long-sleeved shirt, simple trousers and boots during the operation. However, none of them is fireproof.
"The boots save our ankles but they don’t help us balance on steep terrains. It’s slippery,” he said.
"We wear them and carry water with us. When they catch fire, we pour water on them to cool them down. Sometimes our boots get burnt.”
Forest fires and haze are reoccurring problems in northern Thailand in the dry season between January and April. This year, the situation remains severe as the country approaches its water festival Songkran, which is celebrated annually on Apr 13-15.
The period usually sees a large number of tourists in Chiang Mai. But according to the provincial Tourism Authority of Thailand office, 5 per cent of Thai tourists have already cancelled their reservations or postponed their trip to the northern province amid growing public concern about its toxic air.
And still the work of the firefighters goes on. Round the clock they work, trying to restore clear air to the region's suffering people.
"I haven’t stopped working or gone home. I work every day," firefighter Amphon says, as he turns once again to tackle the relentless flames.