A satellite image shows fires (red dots) across Cambodia and surrounding countries in February last year.
A satellite image shows fires (red dots) across Cambodia and surrounding countries in February last year. NASA

Unit to study wildfires in Asean

The first dedicated research unit for studying wildfires in upper Asean countries, including Cambodia, could provide invaluable research data to help governments address the issue, scientists and conservationists said yesterday.

“There is no existing focus or direct research center or special research unit that deals directly with wildland fires, smoke and haze under vegetation types, geographic conditions, weather patterns and related human behaviors of mainland Southeast Asia,” reads the founding statement of the Upper Asean Wildland Fire Special Research Unit (WFSRU).

Established last month within Thailand’s Kasetsart University, the unit aims to fill a significant gap in the region’s knowledge and research on wildfires, forest fires and their impacts on the environment and human society and health in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.

One of its three founders, Dr Veerachai Tanpipat, said the unit’s activities fall under the Global Wildland Fire Network, which was mandated in 2004 by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

“It will act as a focal point to provide all necessary fire, smoke and haze scientific and management knowledge to interested parties,” he said in an email.

According to Tanpipat, the “main purpose” of the unit would be to provide governments, like Cambodia’s, with practical information to address their wildfire problems.

“Fire is a big issue in Cambodia’s forests,” said Simon Mahood, a senior technical advisor for the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society.

“We will look for ways to work with [WFSRU] in Cambodia so that we understand more about the impact of fires and how to prevent them,” he added.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A volunteer holds tubing used as a hose during last year's fires in Prek Toal. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

NASA satellite imagery from the past decade shows Cambodia has one of the region’s highest observed numbers of “hotspots”, or active fires, which cause seasonal haze impacting health and air quality. The 2015-2016 fire season saw as many as 1,000 hotspots recorded in a single day, Forestry Administration officials said at the time.

Alarmingly, dry conditions at that time also led to unprecedented fires in the wetlands surrounding the Tonle Sap lake, burning some 2,000 square kilometres, including large portions of flooded forests.

Multiple Environment Ministry officials could not be reached yesterday or declined to comment for this story.

However, Forestry Administration spokesman Kao Omaliss, while acknowledging high rates of wildfires, categorically denied forest fires were a problem.

As for the wetland fires last year, he maintained that “when we check the satellite it looks big, but if we visit on the site of the fire it’s small”, despite on-the-ground observation by The Post showing otherwise.

Still, Omaliss expressed interest in collaborating with the unit. “If they invite us to the workshop we will attend.”

Additional reporting by Rinith Taing