NAKHON SI THAMMARAT — Officials say a combination of drought and suspected arson has destroyed forest and farmlands the combined area of 2,300 rugby fields. Authorities have few leads on who started the fires.

Since July 29, fires have destroyed 14,493 rai, or 2,318.88 hectares, of forest and farmlands in Pa Phru Kuan Kreng and surrounding areas. In the wreckage, military and forest officials found materials they suspect were used to start the fires, such as incense sticks, matchsticks, and cloth dipped in fuel.

A forest firefighter, who hung up before he could give his name because he “had to get on a helicopter to check out the fires,” said that as of Thursday only ground fires are left. The rest has been extinguished by his team.

“But you never know. It could all flare up again at literally any time,” he said. “If you want to know how the fires began, why don’t you go ask the people behind them?”

Officials try to extinguish a fire at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng on Aug. 20, 2019.
Officials try to extinguish a fire at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng on Aug. 20, 2019.

Forest and military officials, including Gen. Paiboon Koomchaya, oversaw a Wednesday event where some of the affected received aid kits from the palace. According to Paiboon, drought, high winds, and resulting low groundwater levels contributed to forest fires across Chian Yai district on July 29, which intensified and spread on Aug. 6. He said the fires have affected 23,723 people living in Cha-uat, Chian Yai, Chaloem Phra Kiat, Hua Sai, and Ron Phibun districts. Some have had to evacuate while others have been treated for smoke inhalation.

Noolap Kongthong’s house near the forest completely burned down on Aug. 6, leaving her with only 4 baht to her name since all of her banknotes burned.

On Tuesday, Nakhon Si Thammarat governor Chamroen Tippayaponthada offered a 5,000 baht reward for evidence leading to the arrest of anyone suspected of starting the forest fires. A further 50,000 baht is on offer if the evidence contributes to closing the case.

Scorched earth: Pa Phru Kuan Kreng's burnt forest on Aug. 20, 2019.
Scorched earth: Pa Phru Kuan Kreng’s burnt forest on Aug. 20, 2019.

Reports Tuesday said many rangers are exhausted and have low morale from working 20 days straight. Rangers said they suspect arsonists strike at night, relying on hot dawn winds to spread the flames.

Thailand’s rainy season this year was prefaced by a July drought, resulting in dried-up farmlands nationwide. Regions around the globe have also been inundated with wildfires this summer. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro announced Thursday that he suspects NGOs are behind the 74,155 wildfires burning in Brazil, largely in the Amazon. Greenpeace Russia said on Aug. 9 that 5 million hectares of forest in Siberia are currently burning, engulfing some cities in haze. According to The Moscow Times, some 1,000 residents of Krasnoyarsk called on their governor to resign for stating that it wasn’t “economically profitable to fight the blazes.”

A forest ranger hoses a fire on Aug. 15, 2019 at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng.
A forest ranger hoses a fire on Aug. 15, 2019 at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng.
Forest fires on Aug. 12, 2019 at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng.
Forest fires on Aug. 12, 2019 at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng.
Forest rangers hose a fire on Aug. 12, 2019 at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng.
Forest rangers hose a fire on Aug. 12, 2019 at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng.
Forest fires on Aug. 8, 2019 at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng.
Forest fires on Aug. 8, 2019 at Pa Phru Kuan Kreng.

Noolap Kongthong’s house near Pa Phru Kuan Kreng, burned down on Aug. 6.

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