BANGKOK: Northern Thailand is choking on toxic air. Its hills and mountains are ablaze with forest fires, with the Air Quality Index (AQI) crossing the hazardous threshold.
According to AQI readings by the Pollution Control Department, five northern provinces recorded unhealthy to hazardous levels of air quality on Thursday (Mar 11). These provinces include Mae Hong Son (350), Chiang Mai (248), Chiang Rai (291), Tak (219) and Lamphun (213).
AQI readings of above 100 are considered unhealthy, while levels above 200 are regarded as very unhealthy. Readings in excess of 300 are usually considered hazardous.
Data from IQAir, a technology partner of the United Nations Environmental Program also indicated that Chiang Mai city was among the world’s top three most polluted cities on Thursday afternoon.
More than 1,400 hotspots were detected in the northern region on Wednesday morning by Thailand’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency or GISTDA - a considerable increase from 352 on Mar 1.
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.
As the situation intensified, many volunteers have joined firefighters from the Royal Forest Department to help control the flames in the northern provinces. One of them is a 36-year-old pilot from Bangkok, Rapeepol Yaparohit.
“To me, the forest fires are a serious problem and I feel like helping them,” he said. “We use technologies such as GPS, drones and mobile applications to locate firefighters in the forests as well as the fires. Drones help provide aerial images of the area, which is useful when we aren’t familiar with the geography.”
Rapeepol is one of the volunteers who joined the non-governmental Mirror Foundation on an ad hoc mission to help firefighters battle against the burning forests in the mountainous region.
The team’s 30 members take turns doing different tasks, from carrying gallons of water uphill to blowing dry leaves and grass - the fuel - away from the flames to create a firebreak.
How far they have to walk each day depends on how deep the fires are in the forests and how steep the terrain is. According to Rapeepol, there are no well-trodden paths to reach the flames.
“We need to use knives to pave the way. So, getting lost is possible and that’s why we have a leading team to pave the way. Some people would mark the path with bits of cloth so that we know the way back,” he said.
Despite high AQI readings in northern Thailand, Chiang Rai reported much fewer hotspots compared to nearby provinces. Data from GITSDA showed it has 11 hotspots on Wednesday. In comparison, there were 510 hotspots in Mae Hong Son, 311 in Tak and 295 in Chiang Mai.
Sombat Boonngamanong, who leads the volunteer firefighters in Chiang Rai, said the situation is currently under control because local units work systematically together.
Each morning, hotspots are located using satellite imagery and a drone with a thermal imaging camera is deployed to study the size of the fires.
“Then we evaluate how difficult it would be to access which area, for example, how far our vehicles can go in and how steep the terrain is.” Sombat said.
The volunteers are then split into groups with different responsibilities and access the target areas with firefighters from the Royal Forest Department. According to Sombat, extinguishing the fires is not hard. The challenging part is the walk on rough terrain.
“Ninety per cent of our energy is spent on travelling by foot and carrying equipment and water to the hotspots in order to put out the fires,” he said.
“It’s very tough and that’s why we need many volunteers. There are only a few firefighters but a lot of people who provide support for them.”
Between Jan 1 and Mar 5, Chiang Mai’s Public Health Office has reported 31,788 medical visits of patients with health problems related to air pollution, including asthma, bronchitis, chronic rhinitis and acute coronary syndrome.
For firefighters and volunteers, who have to work close to fires and smoke on a daily basis, safety is key. According to Rapeepol, they are required to wear face masks that could filter out PM2.5 - 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 bloodstream unfiltered.
Long-term exposure to these particles can result in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as cancer.
“We also wear smoke goggles, gloves, arm protectors and hiking boots,” Rapeepol said.
“What is scary about firefighting is firefighters risk losing their lives while doing their job. They could fall from the hill, not to mention exhaustion, possible heart attacks and asthma. They could also get burnt. To me, it’s scary but I don’t think the general public knows how scary it is.”