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Thailand Battles Spread of Mountain Wildfires as Heavy Smog Hits Northern Areas Popular with Tourists

March 31, 2023 Thailand Events & Announcements

Thai authorities on Thursday ordered urgent action to stop the spread of a fire that overnight engulfed forests on two mountains in a province northeast of the capital Bangkok.

Firefighting vehicles had been deployed to extinguish the blaze, which broke out on Wednesday night in Nakhon Nayok province, 114 kilometres (70 miles) northeast of Bangkok, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said, adding that helicopters would be sent to provide further assistance.

The fire began on a high part of Khao Chaplu mountain, where safe access for firefighters was impossible, Anucha said. It then spread to the adjacent Khao Laem mountain. Local media said high winds fanned the flames.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was closely monitoring the situation and had ordered officials and the army to mobilise to stop the fire’s spread, Anucha said.

He added that Prayuth ordered officials to watch for anyone deliberately lighting fires to clear land for farming and other purposes, a practice that has been blamed for past fires. The cause of the fire in Nakorn Nayok was not yet clear, though some local media reports said it was set off by lightning.

Separate forest fires have been raging farther north, Anucha noted, including in Chiang Mai province, where water was dumped from the air on Wednesday in an effort the dowse the flames.

Large parts of the north Thailand have been enveloped in a thick layer of toxic smog for days, leading to many inhabitants struggling with health problems.
The provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, popular with tourists, are particularly badly affected.

In the week between March 19 and 26, more than 3,400 people visited hospitals in Chiang Rai alone to be treated for respiratory problems and sore throats, Thai PBS World reported.

“The Mae Sai township remains shrouded in a haze so thick that buildings can only be seen from a short distance away,” it said.

Civil society groups and businessmen had called on provincial governor Puttipong Sirimat to declare the municipality a disaster area. However, the governor initially rejected the move.

The reason for the extreme air pollution is slash-and-burn agriculture in Thailand, but also in neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

At the end of the dry season, farmers burn their fields to clear them of brushwood and weeds. Between January and March there are therefore often high levels of particulate matter.

Chiang Rai is located on the Golden Triangle in the border area with Laos and Myanmar.

The Bangkok Post newspaper quoted Pinsak Suraswadi, director-general of the Pollution Control Bureau, as saying that there is no wind in northern Thailand at the moment, so that the smog cannot dissipate.

The situation is expected to remain serious until next week. There had already been heavy smog in large parts of Thailand at the beginning of March.

The capital Bangkok was also badly affected. However, the air quality there is now back within the normal range.

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