While Chiang Mai volunteers and forestry services are battling ‘burning season’ once again, a group of Non-governmental Organisation (NGO) volunteers from Chiang Rai have come to aid in combating this year’s flames. The volunteers are from a group known as The Mirror Foundation and all of their funding comes from donations and fundraising.
From March 10th through March 21st, around 25 Mirror volunteers travelled the three and a half hour journey from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai to help fight the forest fires that have been ravaging Chiang Mai’s vast countryside. While the Mirror team has had its own fires to fight in Chiang Rai, the team has generously travelled to assist the smaller Si Lanna National Park Protection Unit 7 on daily firefighting missions located in the Phrao District of Chiang Mai.
Mirror Foundation’s Thellie (Dave Root), a 55 year old Cambridge born organiser, said about their firefighting history, “It started locally. We’ve been unofficially fighting fires locally for a few years because our Chiang Rai base is surrounded by hills and every year there are fires in the area. So, we have to go out and fight the fires. We have started spreading out more as of last year by creating firebreaks, fighting fires and getting donations and equipment to more people in need.” Thellie has been volunteering with Mirror for more than 14 years.
The Mirror Foundation volunteers set up base in China Mai at Eden Garden Resort, a 3-star hotel near Sarasas Witaed Lanna school. The entrance of the hotel is outfitted with a vinyl sign welcoming firefighting volunteers and the lobby was converted into a makeshift command station.
Volunteers woke up each day at 7am, had breakfast in the lobby then were debriefed on the day’s firefighting plan. By 8am, the parking lot of the hotel transformed into what looked like a military outpost as volunteers packed their firefighting equipment and loaded up into the back of trucks.
The Mirror Foundation’s use of technology is its strength. Thellie said about the group’s use of tech, “The foundation is based on the use of technology.” The firefighting tech they utilise is something that Chiang Mai firefighters don’t have much access to and it is what makes the addition of The Mirror volunteers so important to Chiang Mai’s firefighting efforts. The Mirror team uses a cellphone application called AFIS (Advanced Fire Information System) to locate GPS coordinates of burning fires in the Chiang Mai region. The app gives the team a ‘hotspot’ that satellites have identified as possible fire activity. Small scouting teams then punch those GPS coordinates into Google Maps and then drive out to the ‘hotspot’ to determine the magnitude of the possible fires. Once the scouting team confirms that the fire is either containable or extinguishable, volunteers then get sent out to work.
While arriving at hotspot locations, drones outfitted with cameras and thermal imaging are sent high into the sky to collect data on the fire. Once the drone returns, Mirror organisers set a firefighting game plan then inform the volunteers on their individual duties.
The goal of the team is safety. Team members use walkie-talkies to communicate and team leaders are outfitted with GPS trackers that record their unit’s every movement. Everyone is accounted for at all times. The team’s professional methods of working is outstanding.
After unloading and entering the forests, volunteers do last minute checks of their gear. Leaf blowers, chainsaws and pesticide backpack sprayers are the weapons of choice. The leaf blowers are used to create firebreaks, or, paths that are created in the leaves to stop the fires from spreading further. The chainsaws are used to cut burning logs and the backpack sprayers are repurposed to squirt water on the flames. Team members that aren’t equipped with tools are known as water-runners. Jugs filled with water are carried by the water-runners to refill the backpack sprayers. When the water jugs run dry, the runners fill up at local rivers and streams when possible. In most cases, fire-control rather than fire-prevention is the mission. Maintaining forest fires and stopping the spread of the fires is the most common tactic the team implements.
The combination of the tech-savvy Mirror volunteers and Chiang Mai’s knowledgeable firefighting team make for a great unification. Most fires are manageable by the firefighters and many are controlled by dusk. After dropping Chiang Mai firefighters back at their outpost the Mirror volunteers headed back to their hotel for a debriefing and a donated dinner. While the team rested from the day’s work, organisers began scanning and preparing for the next day’s fires.
The endless fires of the north will continue to rage and it is Thailand’s selfless volunteer firefighters who will maintain the fight. Unification of the fractured northern volunteer-groups has begun and The Mirror’s two weeks in Chiang Mai has demonstrated just how powerful unity can be. Beyond providing support, the Chiang Rai volunteers have shared valuable education with the people of Chiang Mai. “People need to be more informed,” said Thellie about the fires’ effects. “There are wider ramifications to burning such as the smoke and the health hazards to thousands if not millions of people their fires are causing.”
The Mirror Foundation plans to return to Chiang Mai next year to once again assist with the annual fires that will scorch the northern lands.
If you would like to donate to The Mirror Foundation, you can do so at http://www.mirror.or.th