Twenty six men armed with plastic jugs and three hoses drawing water from the Sangke River are all that stand between what’s left of the Prek Toal bird sanctuary, and a fire that has already destroyed more than 5,000 hectares of flooded forest.
Prek Toal forms the “core area” of the Tonle Sap biosphere, an area some experts have called the single most important breeding ground for water fowl in Southeast Asia.
“In 16 years of patrolling, I have never seen a fire like this,” said one Environment Ministry ranger who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the press. The men, who have been divided into three teams, are trying to contain a fast-moving fire on difficult terrain.
Suspected negligence started the fire in early April and it has since spread across the wetlands thanks to exceptionally dry conditions related to the El Niño-induced drought, climate change and yet-to-be-understood changes of the Tonle Sap flood cycle.
For the past 10 days, the conflagration has come within hundreds of metres of Prek Toal village, and on Wednesday, a column of smoke loomed over the floating settlement.
Variable winds that changed direction by the hour meant the group of rangers and volunteer villagers, none of whom had protective clothing, were constantly outmanoeuvred.
“It is very difficult to fight this fire because it burns the peat underground,” the ranger continued, explaining that the very surface they stood on was fuelling the conflagration. The burned ground now presented an added obstacle, as it was liable to give way. The amateur fire fighters could only tread on ground that had been dampened and tested first.
“We cannot run fast,” he said.
Still-smouldering patches dotted the charred earth, while about a hundred metres away, flames consumed trees that during the wet season would be half submerged. The men hurried across the hot ash to dump water wherever smoke rose from the ground, as the burning peat could potentially kindle fires in new directions.
At one point, a connection in the hose came apart. For a few minutes, the team was in disarray as one man equipped with a screwdriver and circular clamps sprang into action, binding the tubing back together.
Meanwhile, Prek Toal core area director Long Kheng was in Phnom Penh on Wednesday reporting to officials the situation on the ground and collecting salaries for the rangers and the villagers who volunteered to fight the fires.
“A lot of forest was burned outside the core area,” Kheng said in a phone interview, adding that there was no estimate yet available on how much fire damage the Tonle Sap biosphere suffered as a whole.
“Inside the core area, at least 25 per cent of the flooded forest area’s total area [21,342 hectares] was burned,” he claimed. Kheng said that he was also appealing to UNESCO for support.
“We will have to plan to assess the impact of the fire, and we have to have a forest fire response management plan for the Tonle Sap [area], which is different from the uplands,” he said.
“The forest fire affects the local community’s livelihoods; it’s the habitat of the water birds and other wildlife, but it’s also important for the fish, and if there’s no flooded forest . . . the fishermen will not find food, you know? Their livelihood will also be impacted.
“Prek Toal is the heart of the Tonle Sap; it supports the fish stock in the Tonle Sap lake. If there’s no forest, the fish stock will decline,” Kheng continued. The UNFAO predicts a 17 per cent drop in fish production this year due to El Niño.
“The international community and the Cambodian government should pay more attention,” Kheng said.
Independent researcher Veerachai Tanpipat, in an email late last month, said findings “showed that fire activities in the region are still going on, which is not normal, as forest fire season usually should be over by now”.
Meanwhile, experts from ASEAN nations are set to discuss the region’s fire concerns later this month at a meeting organised by the Thai Royal Forestry Department and the Korean Forest Service.
“We hope, we will talk more about how to find ways to work together in order to get forest fires in this region under control again,” Tanpipat said on Tuesday.
Back in Prek Toal, the forest ranger’s short-term assessment was grim.
“We can’t control the fire”.