The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has issued a warning to relevant authorities and residents, urging vigilance to prevent wildfires during the current dry season. 

This concern arises as the arid conditions prompt subsoil plants to cease growth, resulting in the potential loss of various plant species.

In Sala Khum village, Treal commune, Tang Kork district, Kampong Thom province, Sorn Sinith tends to 2ha of date palms. Living with constant worry about fires this time of year, Sinith, a fruit crop owner, recognises the potential damage to his crop and property if a fire were to occur. To safeguard his orchard, he has proactively dug a protective ditch between his land and the prevalent stubbles and fallow grassland in the vicinity. 

“Prevention can reduce losses, though I still have some concerns,” he says.

Chheav Hong, a model farmer in Samrong village, Siem Reap province, shares his experience during a recent farm tour. He says stubble fires in the dry season are caused by arsonists seeking to drive out wildlife in large ground holes.

To avoid this, he consistently ploughs the soil on his land to cover stubbles, preventing widespread fires.

“In case of a field fire, the flames can harm the compost’s quality because of the heat. Stubbles serve as the nutritious compost for the soil. If harvested, it’s advisable to plough the soil and cover the fresh stubbles,” he says.

He says that field fires destroy the compost as they leave charred stubble residue and dust in the ground. This residue turns to charcoal, posing a problem for farmers and air quality when it is blown away. 

Educating for resilience

Regarding this issue, Siem Reap provincial agriculture department director Tea Kimsoth said the department is prepared to prevent wildfires as best as it can. 

Despite the unavailability of fire trucks, he collaborates effectively with local authorities and partner organisations. Their efforts include educating people about wildfire consequences and preventing fire spread, particularly in the flooded forest area

“Dealing with a large-scale fire becomes challenging; however, local authorities can still intervene,” he says.

Kimsoth says that in Siem Reap, large-scale forest or field fires aren’t common, but fires may occur in cornfields and fruit orchards. The fire fighting method involves ploughing across the fire’s path, yet when there’s sufficient wind during a fire, the flames may fly over the ploughed path.

“If a forest fire occurs, it can be catastrophic, halting the growth of plants in the subsoil. Typically, wildfires occur in the jungle, as plants that thrive in the rainy season become susceptible to fire during the dry months,” he says.

Khim Finan, spokesperson for the ministry, tells The Post that official data doesn’t indicate the specific threat of forest fires, but the ministry routinely alerts relevant institutions and residents to the potential risks of wildfires. 

The ministry reminds people to be prepared for fires during the dry season, a time of year known for its susceptibility to such incidents.

Early warnings, green growth

Finan notes that the availability of fire fighting equipment for local communities is limited. He says that in 2020, the Forestry Administration (FA) – which operates under the ministry – received five forest fire trucks from the Asian Forest Cooperation Organisation (AFoCO) for two wildfire-related projects.

These projects, which include early warning systems, fire fighting equipment, capacity-building campaigns and post-fire reforestation, have recently commenced, aiming to manage wildfires effectively.

“Human activities, like burning forests for land clearing and hunting, are the main culprits behind fires. The FA has been sharing preventive techniques, particularly within community forests, such as constructing fire paths,” he says.

Bou Voraksak, director of conservation NGO NatureLife Cambodia, says that during the dry season, wildfire concerns arise in dry forest areas, leading to fires in wildlife sanctuaries like the Lumphat area in Ratanakkiri province. Consequently, carbon dioxide emissions contribute to climate change and poor air quality. Another issue is the impact on animals living in the bush, causing casualties among wildlife.

“Fires result from human actions, whether intentional or not, or due to extreme heat and aridity. If a fire occurs in my area, the authorities, including my organisation, lack tools to prevent it. Our approach involves creating paths to hinder the fire’s spread,” he says.