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More local warnings issued in Phuket as wildfire season continues

More local warnings issued in Phuket as wildfire season continues

PHUKET: As announced by the Thai Meteorological Department (TMD), the country officially entered the hottest season from Mar 5 meaning hotter and drier weather as well as increased risk of fires. The Phuket provincial office of the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM-Phuket) is yet to release a province-wide warning about the risk of fires or conduct a training for local residents to be more aware of fire-prevention measures. Meanwhile local municipalities and administrative organisations keep including mild warnings to people and “requests for cooperation” each time they report another fire extinguished in their respective areas.

By The Phuket News

Saturday 11 March 2023, 01:23PM

The two most recent cases this week include a roadside fire near Wat Manik in tambon Srisoonthorn on Mar 8 and a similar incident on Mar 9 on Muang Mai – Pa Khlok Rd in tambon Thepkrasattri, both in Thalang district. 

Neither of the incidents resulted in loss of life, injuries or significant damage to property as firefighters were able to reach both scenes fast enough and prevent the fire from spreading. 

This was not the case on Feb 5 last year in Rawai, where a large wildfire razed some 50 rai of hillside land near Nai Harn Beach. 

Some 16 tourists were left stranded on rocks at Laem Krathing because of the fire. They were rescued by Navy personnel on boats after it was realised they had absolutely no safe means of escaping by land.

Unable to operate on the steep side of the hills, Phuket fire teams focused on preventing the fire from getting closer to a nearby luxury resort and local houses. It took several days before officials announced that the situation was back to normal. 

Rawai Mayor Aroon Soros blamed two possible factors for the Nai Harn fire of 2022, namely the hot weather (natural cause) or a discarded cigarette butt (man-induced cause). 

No official conclusions have ever been revealed about what caused the most recent fires in Srisoonthorn and Thepkrasattri, leaving people to choose between either of the two mentioned by Mayor Aroon last year – or a combination of them. 

“Thepkrasattri Subdistrict Administrative Organization (OrBorTor, SAO) asks people for cooperation. Please, refrain from burning waste or conduct any activity that may cause a fire. With the current dry weather, a fire can cause widespread damage, affecting property and lives,” the Thepkrasattri OrBorTor said, giving just a hint about possible reasons. 

Helping hand from above

Meanwhile the situation is much worse in some of the mainland provinces of Thailand where DDPM officials have to deal with full scale wildfires in the forests using fire engines where possible and their new Ka-32 “Guardian” helicopter where it is not. 

The aircrafts were provided by Russia, one of the leading manufacturers of firefighting airplanes and helicopters, all based on Soviet-era technologies. Old but good Be-200 and Ka-32 fight fires everywhere from Siberia to Portugal, and Thailand is now one of the operators of such aircrafts.

Reports of wildfires in Trat, Chumphon, Phitsanulok, and Tak are posted by the national DDPM office on a daily basis. Tens of thousands litres of water are spent every day to control the fires devouring local forests, killing wildlife and sending PM2.5 particles into the air. 

The national DDPM Facebook page makes it clear that Ka-32s are very handy in fighting fires in hard to reach areas. Yet it is not clear what resources DDPM Phuket has at its disposal to respond to a wildfire in the jungle or on a hill, just like in Nai Harn last year.

Back then firefighters could only act on foot as fire trucks were physically unable to reach the scene. Firefighting vessels were useless as well, because the blaze was raging too high on the side of the hill. Even evacuating the stranded tourists turned out to be a challenging and risky affair due to the peculiarities of the shoreline in the area.

On Jan 7 this year, the locally based Region 18 DDPM office organised an emergency drill in Kathu modeling a fire in a condominium building. This was where people could witness a Ka-32 in action. The chopper was barraging over the scene demonstrating readiness to provide support if needed. 

Yet it is not clear where the helicopter is based on a regular basis and how many tasks this one aircraft has to fulfill on the regional scene. 

Civil defense

After the Nai Harn Fire, the Phuket branch of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC, the political arm of the Thai military) led a fire preparedness exercise attended by 45 community leaders and local residents, the most obvious first line of disaster prevention and mitigation.

Speaking at the event, Rear Admiral Kanokpol Pimthong, Deputy Chief of the Phuket ISOC branch, made it clear that people’s knowledge about disasters is key to both preventing incidents and taking measures if prevention fails.

“Communities are the first line to face disasters. If the community or locality is prepared to face the situation and can be initially self-reliant to respond to the situation, it will help reduce the loss of both life and property,”  R/Adm Kanokpol said.

The activities aimed to enable community leaders and citizens to learn and understand disaster management practices and be ready to participate in disaster risk reduction and support disaster prevention and mitigation activities, Phuket ISOC explained.

“At present, disasters, both natural and human-caused, have tended to become more severe and unable to be stopped,” R/Adm Kanokpol said.

The officer did not elaborate on why people have become less able to stop disasters now, when we have advanced technical solutions and knowledge.

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