Wildfire Prevention Seen as Critical and Difficult

Though wildfires are common in the hot season, which is from March to May in Myanmar, locals said they have noticed a surge since March this year.

By Admin 12 May 2023

Wildfire Prevention Seen as Critical and Difficult

Written By Gaung & Htet Aung

Along a winding road through the Arakan mountains, locally known as Arakan (Rakhine) Roma, slopes and hills look greyish, with tree stumps standing ugly amid scattered ash and debris; a sign that there were fires recently.

“Previously, Arakan Roma was lush and green with big trees. Today, large areas of mountain forests have been lost. Mountains are no longer pleasant to view because of wildfires,” said Ramree resident U Zaw Min Than as he told DMG what he saw along the Taungup-Pandaung road during a trip last month.

While some wildfires are natural occurrences, others are the result of arson, he added.

“Mainly, people burn it for farming. Some businessmen also apply for the use of vacant and virgin land in Arakan Roma for the stated purpose of growing cashew nut, mango and rubber,” he said. “Then they chop down trees and burn the area.”

Forest Fires Across Arakan State

Though wildfires are common in the hot season, which is from March to May in Myanmar, locals said they have noticed a surge since March this year.

Wildfires were reported in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya, Myebon, Ann, Taungup and Ramree townships.

Forest fires raged for six days, from April 8 to 13, starting at Naung Nar Village and running along the Bel Ngar Yar mountains in Ponnagyun Township. Locals estimate that at least 10 farms of locals in four villages at the foot of the mountains were burnt to ash.

A resident of Aungmakyaw Village in Ponnagyun Township said: “All the farms near the village were burnt in the fire. We don’t know what caused the fire, nor whether it was arson. Some say it was caused by people who made charcoal.”

Aungmkyaw Village is located in the west of the Bel Ngar Rar mountain range, where villagers grow pepper, lemon, banana, mango and djenkol for their livelihoods.

Community elder U Kan Tun Maung of Poeshuepyin Village in Ponnagyun said: “A fire broke out in the mountains near Abaungtaw Village a week ago. The fire burned for two days, two nights. Then we put out the fire, on the last day of Thingyan.”

Dozens of farms in several villages in the east and west of the Bel Ngar Yar mountains were scorched by the flames.

There were also forest fires along the Minechaung mountains in Minbya Township during Thingyan. The fires burnt many trees in mountainous areas where residents of Zinechaung, an ethnic Chin village, and Kalarmataung village-tract, are reliant on the forests for their livelihoods.

“There were forest fires in the Kalarmataung mountains. We don’t know the cause of the fires. Not only big trees, but young trees and bamboo were also burnt in the fire. We are dependent on the forests, and we face hardships,” said U Maung Kyaw Than, a resident of Kalarmataung Village.

There were forest fires in mountains near Kantkawchaung and Sanyin villages in Myebon during Thingyan, said residents. Farms across more than 10 villages near the mountains were damaged.

There have been frequent wildfires along the Rakhine Yoma and Tettaung mountains in Ann Township since March, according to locals.

“There have been continuous forest fires along the Arakan Roma, at Thabyu Chaing Island, the Tettaung mountains, as well as mountains between Ann, Taungup and Magwe Region,” said environmental activist Ko Myo Lwin from Ann Township.

Multiple Causes

Forest fires can occur under various conditions, in many places, at any time. They can spread rapidly and in many directions, and have been known to jump roads, creeks and even rivers.

The financial losses caused by wildfires on local residents in Arakan State are difficult to estimate. 

“We always warn people about wildfires and fires caused by negligence. We don’t usually record the losses caused by wildfires unless the wildfire causes huge losses. But, data is available [at fire services departments] in respective townships,” said U Than Htike, chief of the Arakan State Fire Services Department.

A fire intentionally set by local farmers in Kyauktaw Township spread to the Kyauktaw mountain range on March 8. 

The Arakan State Fire Service Department has issued warnings seeking to prevent wildfires caused by negligence, but U Than Htike said a precise list of wildfires has not been compiled.

The effects of wildfires can include massive damage. Wildfires destroy habitats for many animal species, affecting food chain balances and bringing air pollution that can cause respiratory illnesses.

When a DMG reporter visited the Arakan State Forest Department to enquire about the number of wildfires in Arakan State last year and this year, an official said there was no director and declined to take questions.

Climate scientists predict that due to global warming, large-scale wildfires are likely to occur more frequently in the coming decades.

“Whether people burn forests or they spontaneously combust, in order to protect natural forests, it is necessary to urgently put a strategy in place to prevent these wildfires,” U Zaw Min Than said.