Recent satellite images from NASA have captured a high number of fires blazing across Cambodia this season, illustrating what one forestry official called a chronic inability to deal with the Kingdom’s numerous illegally set fires, a problem exacerbated by especially dry El Niño conditions.
The images also conform to the trend over the past decade of Cambodia registering one of the highest numbers of “hot-spots” in the region, according to NASA Earth Observation Satellite imagery.
The imagery, collected by two orbiting satellites, reveals where and just how many fires might be burning on a given day, a tool also used by officials at the Forestry Administration to investigate fires that may be caused by illegal activities.
The head of the Forestry Management Office at the Forestry Administration, Dr Kao Dana, monitors NASA imagery for “hot spots” or heat anomalies that can reveal where a fire is burning.
“This season is really hard,” he said.
“Already in November, and until April, we see at least 40 to 50 fire hot-spots every day,” he noted, adding that some days that number can approach 1,000.
Dana says his office will report certain hot spots to nearby local Forestry Administration offices that will investigate and report back.
While there are many fires that occur naturally or are controlled burning on farmland, the “natural forest fires are not so many”, Dana said, attributing most blazes in forested areas to illegal human activities such as clear cutting as well as slashing and burning to grab land.
“Forest fires sometimes happen in economic land concessions or near villages, but we do not know whether it’s the fire in the forest or in the rice field, we need to spend a lot of time investigating,” he said.
The Venerable Hiek Sopheap, executive director of the Association of Buddhists for the Environment, an organisation that has helped train villagers in Kampong Chhnang to fight forest fires in the past, says that in addition to people burning forest to grab land or fires caused by simple negligence, such as tossing a cigarette, some fires are intentionally started by hunters.
“They start the camps, and when they cannot find the animals in the forest, they set a fire to chase them out,” he said.
While the government has a program to strengthen local forestry personnel, Dr Dana says necessary equipment is lacking.
A particularly dry season brought on by a strong El Niño led experts to predict that there would be an especially high number of fires this year.
However, in an email yesterday, independent researcher Dr Veerachai Tanpipat said that while “the condition to burn in northern Cambodia [has been] there for a while now”, it’s still too early to say whether the season has seen more fires.