BANGKOK - As choking smog continued to smother northern Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha flew to Chiang Mai province yesterday (Tues) and promised full government assistance to tackle the crisis.
The region appears to have been hit particularly hard this year by the haze, an annual scourge caused by forest fires and the illegal slash and burn method of clearing farmlands during the height of summer.
At 2pm on Tuesday, vast swathes of the north in Nan, Phayao, Lampang, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai registered 24-hour average readings of fine airborne particulate matter that exceeded safe standards. The presence of pollutants smaller than 2.5 micrometres reached as high as 256 micrograms per cubic metre near the Myanmar border in Mae Hong Son province.
Fires continued to rage across the mountainous north, with Thailand's Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency recording as many as 348 hotspots on Monday (April 1).
Handing out firefighting equipment to some officials on Tuesday (April 2), Mr Prayut promised: "The government will support this operation with all its resources, to ease the problem within seven days."
Embattled Chiang Mai governor Supachai Iamsuwan, under strong criticism for not doing more to tackle the problem, told reporters on Tuesday: "We will ramp up all operations and solve the problem within seven days. We will go down to the smallest (fire) in the villages."
He added that the Chiang Mai administration had set up 297 places of refuge equipped with air-conditioning and air purifiers.
"We believe that the centres are suitable and we have enough, but we can add more if needed."
But many Chiang Mai locals remained sceptical about government efforts.
Hotelier Pornchai Jitnavasathien dismissed the idea of the centres , saying: "It's not working. It's a crazy idea. You should be giving out masks and asking people to stay at home rather than moving them to centres."
The government, he said, should have declared a crisis so that people could stay at home rather than risk their health by heading outdoors.
"If this had happened in Bangkok, there would have been a lot of pressure on the government," he said.
In late January, still winds concentrated city pollution in the air surrounding the capital, triggering an uproar in Bangkok. Officials rushed to check vehicle emissions and even halted construction work. In some locations, maintenance and firefighting crew sprayed water into the air, the same as they are doing now in Chiang Mai.
In the landmark general election on March 24, Chiang Mai locals cast their ballots in facemasks.
Hotel occupancy in the city - the second biggest in Thailand - typically hits 60-70 per cent during the Songkran holiday period in mid-April, but is hovering at 30 to 35 per cent now, said Mr Pornchai.
Locals are now improvising on equipment try to make the air more breathable.
On Facebook, they are sharing tips on how to pair a regular extractor fan with a Xiaomi air filter, to create a home-made air purifier for just 1,200 baht (S$51). A full-scale purifier costs at least four times as much.
"If you don't have enough money for an air purifier, this can help," says freelance programmer Nattapol Kurapornkietpikul, 30, who was inundated with queries after he shared pictures of his idea on his Facebook account. Both items are now out of stock in many places.