Fires are all around us in nearly every direction and the air is so thick the sun is only a red glow long after dawn. I have found out why, and it’s not what I have long heard.
From where we live we can see hillsides on clear days and dim silhouettes of them on days like this. At night we can often see fires creating orange jagged lines on the horizon. With binoculars we can sometimes see them flare as they get to clumps of fuel.
First some facts.
No one lives on these hillsides. The fires happen every year. The hillsides are wooded. There has been no lightning. The fields below are mostly planted now or are being left for better irrigation.
These facts mean that around here “routine blame” does not apply. The semi-official explanation for hill fires is that ethnic minorities are engaging in slash-and-burn agriculture. Blaming the hill tribes doesn’t work here in our kink in the valley, nor does blaming the lowland rice farmers – right now.
Everybody here says that these fires are set deliberately to clear away the ground clutter so that the mushrooms can be seen when the first rains come again. The fires help mushroom hunters. Mushroom hunting is the last serious hunter-gatherer product in our forest area, along with bamboo shoots. The big wildlife are gone that used to be driven ahead of the fires so they could be shot. There are no more wild hogs or deer, no matter what they tell you about their meat at the “jungle produce” markets on the Lampoon-Lampang highway.
Farmers do burn off their fields. It is almost universal hereabouts. “Why?” I asked. It kills the insects, I was told. It is not about returning nutrients to the soil. It is not even very much about making plowing easier, although that is a marginal benefit for those who plow with animals … which not one farmer does in our valley. Burning reduces the need to apply insecticides. But I drove around the valley. No field was being burned. It’s not the season. Field fires are not the cause of Chiang Mai’s haze.
Chiang Mai is in a finger-shaped valley. Drive from Chiang Mai in any direction and you have to cross steep hills. The valley fills up with air-borne particulates. This season the chief cause is burning. Everybody who has space burns dried vegetation. If the trees were not trimmed and weeds not cut the jungle would reclaim the valley as it is relentlessly trying to do. There is no public program for disposing of this waste. When municipalities do run one of their rare projects for gathering branches they burn them. In effect burning is public policy. But that burning is minimal and spread throughout the year. It does not explain this level of haze.
Only deliberate forest fires explain the air pollution in Chiang Mai in March and April. Mushrooms are the reason.
Some families depend on the annual mushroom harvest to provide cash for the year. Certain kinds of mushrooms sell for more than prime beef, pound for pound. One type can go for $10 a liter. The demand for those little nuggets always exceeds the supply. I know some people who drive up from Bangkok just to have a dish of them. They are much easier to spot if the ground is black with fine ash. In fact, if leaves and clutter are allowed to accumulate for more than a couple of seasons the mushrooms can’t be found at all, and the fires, when they come would be much more destructive. Healthy trees are not killed by annual burning.
It is not hard to find the reason forestry officials are frustratingly passive about these forests aflame. Usually, the only damage is to air quality. Unfortunately that is a lethal danger to those with respiratory diseases. For the rest of us it is aggravating.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.