Every single day during the burning season, a 55 year old Australian man disappears into Lampang’s forests in search of fire. Armed only with a leaf blower, some fireproof overalls and a few survival tools. Tall, balding and white, often looks out of place as he treks through the jungle, he often for hours on end, heading towards a small plume of smoke rising above the dry canopies.
Peter Ferdinand moved to Lampang four years ago and has been fighting fire ever since. “In Australia, volunteering is common, so when I returned to Lampang with my wife to help her with her jam business, I soon became involved with a group of people actually dedicated to doing something about the vast burning that takes place every year,” he explained after Citylife found his images were trending across Facebook after this hot topic (pun intended) became national news for the nth year running. “I’m just an ordinary person, but when a friend shared my picture, explaining how I help a local team of volunteers put out fires every day, my face was suddenly blasted on the 6am news and I was momentarily famous. I had calls from all over the place congratulating me, but I think it was more of a novelty that I was a farang.”
Ferdinand and his wife, Nittaya Charee, are part of a growing group of concerned citizens in Lampang all working towards preventing fires or putting them out when and where they can. Under the banner of the We Love The King Lampang Group, this group of volunteers work tirelessly every day and night, identifying fires, rallying volunteers and authorities and fighting fires on the ground. We Love The King groups are found across the country, often working to the problems on a local level, be it flooding, fires or infrastructure. Made up of a good hundred or more volunteers at any time the Lampang group has a wide range of people all offering unique skills, although Ferdinand is the only foreigner to date.
“Not everyone in the group actually goes out and fight the fires,” explained Ferdinand. “They work as spotters and support teams during emergency trips, help use their connections to get things done and also help build fire breaks and check dams — following the late King’s designs — in a bid to help prevent fires during the burning season.”
Ferdinand explained that during the burning season, the group follows no set plan as each case is different. If the official firefighting teams are not available or if the fire is located deep in the jungle, it is usually down to the volunteers to sort it out. “We start by trying to confirm that there is fire, then we make a plan,” he continued. “If it’s in the city then it is the local authorities who have to deal with it. We don’t have the resources to put out large rubbish fires which need gallons of water, but we can help by preventing and putting out jungle floor fires by clearing flammable debris away and blowing the fire back in on itself so it burns out. We very rarely use water to put out fires.”
The technique used was developed specifically for putting out low level fires in hard to reach areas. “These fires are not like the forest fires you see in California and such places,” he said. “They are usually only a foot or so in height and burn at lower temperatures so I usually jump over the fire into the already burnt areas to evaluate its size before using a leaf blower or big bamboo beaters to put it out. The fires are still very dangerous, but if we tackle them methodically we can easily disperse the flames.”
Although well-equipped himself, Ferdinand also pointed out that unlike most other countries in the world where firefighters have oxygen tanks and full breathing apparatus, the Thai equivalent is often just a simple 3M mask. “I don’t blame the Thai firefighters for not risking their lives in fires that are too big to handle, opting to just let them burn out. If they are injured they get no recovery pay and how can they support their family?” He continued by explaining how most forest fires are ignored by the authorities due to reasons such as risk, resources or effort, mentioning cases where fire crews would sometime arrive at a fire, only to stare at before going home, agreeing that letting it burn itself out would be the best option.
“Over the last few years, I have seen fires increase, despite what the authorities are claiming,” Ferdinand explains cautiously. “They like to use the term ‘hotspot’ to describe a single fire, but if four or five fires merge together, then really we have more fire but less hotspots. Every fire I put out is manmade. 100%.”
He also pointed out that during times of really bad air quality, fires go unnoticed as you can’t identify individual smoke plumes as they are masked by the smoke already in the air.
Ferdinand shared his theory that more and more fires are being started to expand plantation boundaries as opposed to hunting for jungle produce. “We are finding an increasing number of fires found suspiciously close to plantations, burning away from their boundaries,” he said. “On one occasion we were chased away by men with guns surrounding an illegal pineapple plantation, and another time we called the police to help us deal with a similar situation and they refused to come. There is certainly something bigger to burning than mushroom farmers.”
“Although there are those that start fires to get mushrooms and other forest food, I can’t help but feel sorry for them when they are caught,” he empathised. “They seem to be less and less of a problem but they are the easiest and safest to catch – most of them have no clue there is even a burning ban in place and they are just trying to feed their family. The real problem is more organised burns by people in power…and from what I’ve seen, they come from all areas of power.”
Strangely, Ferdinand points out that every year like clockwork, the fires just stop around the 26th of March in Lampang, but nobody really knows why. After a few days the smoke disperses, the air becomes cleaner and people stop talking about the problem until it begins the next year. At the time of writing this, his prediction was almost spot on, although the smoke levels in Lampang did rise again after Songkran.
“What we are working to do now is expand our network and try and see if the government will provide the appropriate authorities with more resources and larger budgets to deal with the problems head on. We work alongside the authorities already, but if fires were dealt with more seriously, we could see the army helicoptering in troops or dropping water from the air, which could help prevent small fires becoming big fires,” he concluded. “Right now it takes us a few hours to get to the fire, by which time it could have grown tenfold. If we can cut that time down, then we may be able to help solve the problem not but stopping the fires from starting, but preventing them from growing into the monsters they become, the real cause of the smoke problem we are facing today.”