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Sleepless nights and days have already begun for the Fire Hawk Team. February to May is the peak period for forest fires and that means no rest, no leisure, no get-togethers with family and friends for those firefighters who put their lives on the line every day.

“The forest fire trend is alarming this year,” said Chanpen Kasetsin, Director of the Chiangmai Forest Fire Control Extension Center. “In the first two months of this year, the number of forest fires has already exceeded that of the same period last year. And as the peak period of forest fires usually runs through the end of April, this is distressing.”

According to the statistics published by the Royal Forestry Department, there were 361 forest fires between October 2021 and February 2022, a number that rose to 759 during the same period in 2022- 2023. In Chiang Mai alone, there were 138 forest fires that damaged an area of 2,298 rai between October 2021 and February 2022. The situation was worse this year, with the number more than doubling at 344 forest fires and damaging an area of 8,588 rai.

“Climate change has caused the dry season to arrive early. So, our operations begin early too,” she said.

The Fire Hawk Team under Chiangmai Forest Fire Control Extension Center has only 15 members but the area for which they are responsible covers two provinces in the North of Thailand – Chiang Mai and Lamphun. It is vital that they receive strong support from local communities as well as others in both the public and private sectors.

Kamol Nuanyai, Director of the Forest Resource Management Office No.1 (Chiang Mai) said,  “Our forest firefighters can never control fires without the help from villagers who live right at the spot. Support from the general public and private sector also makes our work easier.

“The Royal Forestry Department has regularly provided locals with knowledge and training on how to prevent and handle forest fires. The awareness about forest fires is rather strong today and the villagers have become part of our core team to control them,” said Kamol.

While local communities keep an eye on forest fires and are the first to reach the flames, the general public also provides indirect support. Local businesses and organizations have donated some necessary equipment like blowers, shoes, gloves, and torches, or even lent pickup trucks for villagers to use for fire control and prevention purposes. Some have held volunteer activities like joining the Fire Hawk team in making fire breaks.

The public sector, including universities, has also lent a hand to keep forest fires under control.

With the help of the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA), forest firefighters have real-time access to information about fire hotspots. Educational institutes like Chiang Mai University and Kasetsart University have also developed applications that enable effective fire control measure implementation.

For example, understanding that burning dry leaves at an appropriate time is a way to control and manage combustible materials, the Royal Forestry department requires people to ask for permission to burn those leaves on their farms. An app was developed to request that permission. This app is connected with other data systems and will analyze important information like the wind speed, temperature, humidity, etc. before it grants permission for the person to burn dry leaves and wood when the risk of causing a forest fire is low and everything is under control.

The major cause of forest fire is human. Knowledge and awareness are, therefore, key to lowering the risks.

“In the past when encroachment was a big issue, the entire society addressed the issue in a concerted effort. The result is amazing. Today, forest encroachment has significantly diminished as awareness is very high. We hope to see higher awareness of forest fires so that the number of fires will be lower,” said Kamol.

For Chanpen, as the head of the Fire Hawk Team in Chiang Mai, the general public’s awareness of the forest fire problem is the key.

“We have to admit that people in big cities speak louder. Although they live far away, when they speak, everyone hears them. That will amplify awareness. For us, the frontliners, knowing that people understand and see how hard we work to protect the forest, we feel blessed. Our spirits will be high,” said Chanpen.

By Veena Thoopkrajae with additional report by Kanokchan Patanapichai

 

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