Thailand forest fires worsen pollution that has left two million ill

A mountain in the Khao Laem National Park in Nakhon Nayok was engulfed in flames on Wednesday night. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK – Raging forest fires in northern Thailand are threatening to worsen the country’s air pollution, which has sent nearly two million people to hospitals with respiratory illnesses since the beginning of the year. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Thursday ordered urgent steps to put out forest fires in Nakhon Nayok province in the east of capital Bangkok and those in the country’s northern region, including popular tourist destinations Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, according to government spokesman Anucha Burapachasri. 

Firefighters and other officials have been deployed to monitor the affected areas, as burning of farmlands and illegal foraging occur during this time of the year, Mr Anucha said in a statement on Thursday.

A mountain known as Khao Laem in Nakhon Nayok that was engulfed in flames since Wednesday has been brought under control, the government said late on Thursday.

Several wildfires are also reported from protected forests in Thailand’s north, with several hot spots across the borders in neighbouring Myanmar and Laos, a satellite heat map by a Thai space agency showed. 

The wildfires are the latest cause of the worsening air quality in Thailand that has pushed levels of particulate dust particles known as PM2.5 in some areas past the unhealthy threshold into the hazardous zone. 

Bangkok and other Thai cities have grappled with poor air quality in recent years, with pollution tending to get worse in the dry season around December to February, due largely to agricultural burning in Thailand and neighbouring countries, as well as vehicular emission.

Chiang Mai was ranked as the world’s most polluted city by air quality monitor IQAir earlier on Thursday, with a “very unhealthy” PM2.5 concentration reading.

Its neighbouring province Chiang Rai had a “hazardous” reading for most of the last seven days, IQAir data showed. 

The Ministry of Public Health said eight provinces in Thailand’s north were being monitored for dangerous levels of air pollution, which is expected to last until early April and normalise in May.

Patients with air pollution-related diseases in Thai hospitals have spiked to more than 1.73 million between Jan 1 and March 19, 2023, according to Mr Opas Karnkawinpong, the ministry’s permanent-secretary.

Thais are urged to stay indoors as much as possible or wear respirators when outside, he said. BLOOMBERG

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