Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Northern provinces declare haze disaster areas

I'm kind of glad not to be in Chiang Mai at the moment. It's shrouded in smoke from forest fires in Burma. I can well imagine what it's like. Each year the air is very smoky anyway from the burning off of the fields. Chiang Mai sits at the foot of mount Doi Suthep and during this season the mountain disappears in the haze.

Bangkok Post: Provinces declare haze disaster areas
By Post Reporters
Chiang Mai

Chai Prakan and Phrao districts of Chiang Mai have been declared haze disaster areas and airlines have cancelled most flights because thick smoke from forest fires and traditional slash-and-burn farming has shrouded northern provinces and raised fears of increasing levels of harmful dust.

Chiang Mai, along with nearby Chiang Rai, Lampang and Mae Hong Son provinces, has been encountering heavy haze. The smoke also comes from bush fires in the Burmese town of Tachilek opposite Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai, officials said.

"The thick smoke is seen all over the sky," said Chai Prakan district chief Chokedee Amornwat.

The disaster zone announcement follows bad weather conditions caused by the haze for the past two weeks.

The smoke has hindered the visibility of airplane pilots and caused flight delays and cancellations.

Poor visibility has also blocked an effort to make artificial rain aimed at reducing the amount of dust, which is posing serious health risks to people.

The dust particles, technically called particulate matter (PM-10), have a diameter of not more than 10 microns, around one-seventh the width of a human hair. The tiny size allows them to easily lodge in lungs and cause respiratory problems.

To reduce their exposure to the harmful dust, the Public Health Ministry has distributed 130,000 masks to people in eight northern provinces - Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Lampang, Lamphun, Phrae, Nan and Phayao.

"The ministry has also given out leaflets telling people how to take care of their health in the face of thick smoke from burning activities," said permanent secretary for public health Prat Boonyawongvirote.

Yesterday, the level of PM-10 dust in Chiang Mai and Lampang was found to be beyond an acceptable standard. It was measured at 250.9 microgrammes per cubic metre in Chiang Mai and 154.8 in Lampang, against a health standard of 120 ug/cu m, according to the Pollution Control Department.

Chalermsak Vanitsombat, chief of the Natural Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, said forest fires were not only to blame for the air pollution.

"The haze largely comes from weed-burning in farms," said Mr Chalermsak, who supervises forest fire control operations.

Mr Chalermsak said his department has no power to stop the farmers and could only ask for their cooperation in stopping the burning.

The high price of maize has driven some farmers to encroach on forest and set fire to it to clear land for farming.

Mr Chalermsak said this was a "main cause of thick smoke" in Chiang Mai. This has intensified air pollution in the province, where household bonfires are also common.

The level of humidity in the air is also less than that of last year, causing more severe fires this year, according to the department.

Officials yesterday started making artificial rain in Chiang Mai. The mission aims to increase humidity in the forest, thus reducing the chance of forest fires.

Meanwhile, Thai Airways International (THAI) cancelled flights between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son for the second day yesterday due to poor weather conditions. However, Weerapong Kranlert, THAI manager for Chiang Mai airport, said it was common practice to do so due to haze in the dry season and mist in the cold season.

The thick smoke has also caused flight delays between Bangkok and Chiang Rai, but there have been no reports of flight cancellations on this route.

In Chiang Rai, 700 officials and volunteers have been ordered to be on alert for forest fires in areas near the border with Burma. Farmers are also prohibited from burning farm residues. Violators will be fined 2,000 baht, according to the Environmental Quality Act.

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