By: Panumate Tanraksa | March 29, 2020 | newspaper section: News
Toxic haze has reached a dangerous tipping point in Chiang Mai province
The bushfires that have been raging near the tourist city of Chiang Mai over the past few days are heightening concerns for both residents and the authorities with the risk they pose of extreme air pollution, coming on top of worries about the coronavirus.
The levels of ultra-fine dust, known as PM2.5, which like Covid-19 causes severe respiratory problems has skyrocketed to around 1,000 microgrammes per cubic metre (µg/m³), far exceeding both Thailand’s safe upper limit of 50µg/m³ and the World Health Organisation threshold of 25 µg/m³.
A reading of 925µg/m³ on Friday not only made Chiang Mai the most polluted city in the world at the time, as ranked by Switzerland-based air quality watchdog AirVisual, it was also the highest level of PM2.5 ever formally recorded in Thailand.
Chiang Mai governor Charoenrit Sanguansat told the Bangkok Post the pollution was mainly caused by the bushfires which are “very severe every time they erupt”.
Among hotspots spread across the province is a forest fire at Doi Suthep-Pui National Park in Muang district, which has been responsible for the worst of the pollution this week.
Unfortunately, the park is located near the urban area where several thousand people live and on Wednesday evening threatened to strike residential areas, prompting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to express grave concerns about the welfare of residents.
NOT SAFE ANYWHERE
“There’s no need to even look at the PM2.5 levels. The smoke in our houses tells us all we need to know,” Pornchai Chitnawasathian, chairman of Doi Inthanon Conservation Trust Fund Foundation, said.
While people have been instructed to stay indoors to protect themselves from the coronavirus infection, most homes in the city pose no barrier to PM2.5 and its harmful effects on people’s lungs.
While a surgical mask provides some protection against Covid-19, only an N95 certified face mask is effective against air pollution and can protect the wearer against PM2.5 particles which are 1/20 the diameter of a human hair.
As of yesterday, there were still 624 fires not yet under control in Chiang Mai, followed by 430 in Mae Hong Son and 276 in Nan, according to the Pollution Control Department.
DOI SUTHEP-PUI IN CRISIS
The fire originally broke out the national park on March 17 near Huai Tueng Thao reservoir and continued to fan out until late last week.
Firefighters described a “sea of flames” as the fire razed through the park, approaching the ascent to Doi Suthep where the revered Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple is located.
The fires also threatened Hmong Doi Pui, an ethnic hill tribe village, as well as Wat Phrathat Doi Kham.
Hundreds of park officials, soldiers and volunteers have now been mobilised in a joint mission to stop the fire.
Drones are being used to locate hotspots that are liable to spread to inhabited areas and helicopters and planes are acting on that information to douse them with water.
“The fire was put out, but it sparked up again. It was not completely extinguished,” Mr Pornchai said.
Meanwhile, firefighters are also fighting a ground war which has left many suffering from burns and smoke inhalation, according to Mr Charoenrit who added the teams are working around the clock.
The governor said he is aware that Covid-19 has now hit Chiang Mai where 11 infected people have been reported, but while the fire is still threatening the lives of his constituents he has no time to focus on the disease.
Mr Pornchai, also a former chairman of the Chiang Mai Tourism Business Association, does not understand why Chiang Mai people are still suffering from smog despite the many initiatives taken to prevent bushfires and outdoor burning.
As part of a “Set Zero” campaign, the Chiang Mai governor announced a “no-burning” period from Jan 10 to April 30, which strictly prohibits using fires to clear farmland.
However, the order was widely defied despite the threat of 20 years in jail and/or a fine of up to two million baht for violations, Mr Pornchai said.
Mr Charoenrit said 293 suspects have been arrested so far.
“Those who burn must be outsiders,” Doi Pui village head Methaphan Phutchakritsadapha said, arguing local people want to see the situation improve for the benefit of themselves and their families.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has set up the national centre to coordinate efforts to deal with forest fires and haze.
Over and above that, the Interior Ministry is overseeing no-burning measures and the Defence Ministry will ramp up forest patrols.
Also, the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry has set a target of ending slash-and-burn farming within three years and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry is working to tackle the fires as they break out.
NORTH UNDER FIRE
The Pollution Control Department has warned the number of hotspots is increasing and, combined with “closed weather” and haze from neighbouring countries, is likely to lead to abominable air quality in the region.
The number of hotspots rose to more than 2,283 yesterday from 1,717 last Thursday, it said, adding the fires make it almost impossible to tackle the PM2.5 problem in any meaningful way.
Yesterday PM2.5 levels were in the red zone in Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Phayao and Chiang Mai, with the highest reading of 358µg/m³ measured in Chiang Dao district, according to the department.