Blitz targets burnoffs as air worry mounts
Seasonal fires blamed for northern haze crisis
Published: 28 Jan 2013 at 01.11
Online news: Local News

CHIANG MAI: Authorities are aiming to damp down the "burning culture" in the North to ward off the annual haze crisis.

A campaign will encourage people not to burn crops and household waste, which is a common practice in the northern provinces, Aphiwat Khunarak, chief of the environment office region 1, said.

This seasonal crop burning can create dangerous dust levels in the air during the driest months, he said.

A dangerous haze is expected in March.

Authorities are also preparing an evacuation plan for vulnerable people if the haze becomes too severe.

Vulnerable people such as the elderly, children, and the infirm, will be moved from haze-hit areas to temporary shelters in areas with good air.

Evacuations will be carried out if dust levels hit 300-400 microgrammes per cubic metre. The safe limit is 120.

Authorities in Chiang Mai are campaigning against burnoffs after the northern provinces were hit by haze in previous years, Mr Aphiwat said.

"We don't want to encounter such a crisis again so we are campaigning against burning," Mr Aphiwat said.

In the lead-up to the Thai New Year in April, many northerners spring-clean their homes and burn unwanted items outdoors. Farming also adds to the problem.

For example, corn growers working under deadlines to plant, harvest and clear land quickly for the next crop tend to burn cornstalks left over from the previous harvest, rather than bury them.

Though burying is more environmentally friendly, it takes more time and costs more than burning, Mr Aphiwat said.

He urged local agencies to teach farmers about alternative methods of clearing plantations. "We just tell these farmers not to burn but they know of no alternatives," he said.

He said the government should compensate farmers for the cost of burying, or encourage them to grow other crops which do not need to be disposed of after harvest.

Meanwhile, officials of the Doi Inthanon fire control unit have trained more than 50 volunteers in how to handle bushfires, which usually break out between January and April.

Somdet Bunseng, assistant to the fire control unit chief, said budget restraints and a staff shortage make it impossible to keep watch on the whole of the 250,000-rai Doi Inthanon National Park.

The park's mountainous landscape also makes it hard to gain access to some fires but officials will try to reduce the problem by building firebreaks near known "hot spots". Firebreaks are gaps in vegetation which serve as barriers to contain wild fires.

The number of bushfires has dropped in recent years from an average of 300 a year to about 100 a year now, Mr Somdet said. He attributed the drop to locals becoming more aware of the hazards of setting fires in forests.

Public Health Minister Pradit Sintawanarong Sunday instructed health officials in nine northern provinces to keep watch for haze-related ailments.

The nine provinces at risk are Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Lamphun, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Phrae, Phayao and Tak.

Health officials would pay special attention to seven risk groups - children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with asthma, heart disease, emphysema, and allergies.

These people should avoid outdoor activities when the dust particle-level exceeds safety limits, he said.

The ministers also assigned village health volunteers to educate the public about the impacts of burning activities in the dry season.

BANGKOK POST