Soldiers join mission to tackle forest fires in North; army turns to US, Australia for training in handling hotspots
AIR POLLUTION in parts of Chiang Mai’s Samoeng district was so bad yesterday that it surpassed the maximum measurable levels of the Air Quality Index (AQI), reflecting the severity of the smog crisis in the North.
A real-time reading by the Chiang Mai Air Quality Health Index (CMAQHI) showed AQI scores in Samoeng’s tambon Yang Mern had soared beyond 500 – the highest level the AQI can record. Soldiers, meanwhile, have joined the mission to combat forest fires that are identified as the main cause of haze.
Locals say forest fires have been raging in Samoeng since March 27 and smoke from the blaze has spread all over the district.
Based on the AQI system, scores of between 401 and 500 indicate hazardous levels of air pollution when no one should venture outdoors, not even healthy people.
Established by the Chiang Mai University’s academics, CMAQHI found AQI scores hovered between 428 and 459 in at least nine tambon of Chiang Mai’s San Pa Tong, Mae Rim, Mae Wang and Phrao districts yesterday.
A key indicator of AQI is the amount of PM2.5, or particulate matter of not more than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, per cubic metre of air. According to the World Health Organisation, PM2.5 is carcinogenic and linked to several health problems.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha visited Chiang Mai and ordered that relevant authorities integrate anti-smog efforts and improve the situation within seven days.
In response to his order, Third Army Area’s deputy chief, Maj-General Bancha Duriyapunt, posted on Facebook yesterday that his unit had already adjusted its response plan. “We have now identified high-risk areas and are working closely with the district chief, provincial governors and chiefs of provincial peace-keeping forces,” his post read.
According to him, healthy soldiers, policemen and volunteers will be dispatched to survey high-risk areas. If forest fires are spotted, they will immediately alert relevant units.
“This way, we can send in a team or even helicopters to help extinguish the fires,” Bancha said. The surveys will be conducted until April 9, with information gathered to prepare forest-fire prevention and solutions.
The Army, meanwhile, announced that the Second Army Area will also join the mission to put out forest fires.
“We have prepared four helicopters for the mission,” the Army said. “The Royal Thai Air Force will also provide some more aircraft.”
Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong said HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn and HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn were worried about the recurrence of forest fires and have asked about training soldiers for the purpose of tackling fires.
“We have now contacted the United States and Australia, both of which have forest fire-fighting units, to arrange relevant training,” Apirat said.
Recognising the serious air pollution in Samoeng district’s tambon Yang Mern, a team from Chiang Mai University will head to the area on Sunday. The team said it will conduct health checks for locals particularly children, the elderly, those with chronic diseases, as well as officials fighting forest fires.
The team also plans to provide relevant knowledge and protective gear for locals, and will also develop a clean room for people to take shelter from the harmful haze.
“At least, locals will have a temporary shelter during the smog crisis,” the team’s representative said yesterday.
Hourly reports on the website of the Chiang Mai Air Quality Health Index Centre (cmaqhi.org) through the morning showed PM2.5 at its highest concentration in tambon Yang Mern measuring 618 micrograms per cubic metre of air.
The safe limit in Thailand is 50.
The Chiang Mai University rector’s office in Chang Pheuk, Muang Chiang Mai, measured 282mcg of PM2.5, but that dropped to 90mcg by 11am. Readings in Yang Mern also fell to 296mcg.
Later measurements showed the levels at Chiang Dao at 400mcg and Mae Na and Ping Kong in Chiang Dao district at 371 and 358, respectively.
The Pollution Control Department at 9am yesterday put the 24-hour average of PM2.5 in nine northern provinces at between 29mcg and 277mcg.
Tambon Jong Kham in Muang Mae Hong Son was the worst-hit with 277mcg, followed by Wiang Phang Kham in Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai (162) and Chang Pheuk in Muang Chiang Mai (130).
Chiang Mai’s three other stations also cited high levels – Sri Phum and Suthep in Muang at 109 and 77 respectively, and Chang Kerng in Mae Chaem at 111.
Meanwhile, the haze has also spread to other provinces in the North, as naturally occurring forest fires and deliberately lit outdoor fires together totalled 793 hotspots as of 3am yesterday.
The Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency said Mae Hong Son had 372 hotspots, Chiang Mai 161 and Chiang Rai 112.