As choking smog continued to smother northern Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha flew to Chiang Mai province yesterdayand promised full government assistance to tackle the crisis.
The region appears to have been hit particularly hard this year by haze, an annual scourge caused by forest fires and the illegal slash-and-burn method of clearing farmland during the height of summer.
At 2pm yesterday, vast swathes of the north in Nan, Phayao, Lampang, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai provinces 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 in Mae Hong Son near the Myanmar border.
Fires continued to rage across the mountainous north, with Thailand's Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency recording as many as 348 hot spots on Monday.
Handing out firefighting equipment to some officials yesterday, 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 yesterday: "We will ramp up all operations and solve the problem within seven days. We will go down to the smallest (fire) in the villages."
Masks prepared for Asean meeting
BANGKOK • Thailand is preparing face masks for an upcoming summit of regional finance ministers and central bank governors after pollution caused air quality to hit alarming levels, an official has said.
The air quality index in Chiang Rai, where Thailand will host the Asean Finance Ministers' and Central Bank Governors' meeting this week, reached levels considered unhealthy at 240 to 250, government data showed.
Masks have been prepared, Mr Nadhavudh Dhamasiri, a senior Finance Ministry official, told Reuters yesterday.
About 300 officials are expected for the meeting, with some already arriving. There are no plans to change the meeting venue or schedules, officials have said.
"The dust situation is improving and has not affected the meeting schedules," Mr Nadhavudh added.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that the government has already given out nearly two million masks to residents in the area.
Dr Sate Sampattagul, head of the Climate Change Data Centre at Chiang Mai University, told Reuters: "The smog problem in nine northern provinces is due to agriculture burning in forests, which happens every year."
The smog is worse this year because of a drought and more illegal burning, he added.
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."
GOING ALL OUT
We will ramp up all operations and solve the problem within seven days. We will go down to the smallest (fire) in the villages.
CHIANG MAI GOVERNOR SUPACHAI IAMSUWAN
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 face masks.
Hotel occupancy in the city - the second biggest in Thailand - typically hits 60 per cent to 70 per cent during the Songkran holiday period in mid-April, but is hovering at 30 per cent to 35 per cent now, said Mr Pornchai.
Locals are now improvising equipment to 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 homemade 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," said 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.