Up in flames

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Up to 200 forest fires reported each day as long, hard dry season reduces drought-stricken areas to ashes and dust

The view from what were once some of Vietnam's most stunning mountain vistas are now dark, desolate and smoky.

Over 150 major forest fires have destroyed 1,633 hectares of forest this year, mostly in the northern mountainous provinces of Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Ha Giang and Cao Bang, said Ha Cong Tuan, head of the Forest Protection Department (FPD) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

That is more than 10 times the amount that burned in the first two months of 2008 or 2009, in each of which only 140 hectares were destroyed. Only 1,557 hectares were hit by forest fires in 2009 and 1,500 were destroyed by flames in 2008.

Tuan said up to 200 forest fires were being reported per day in recent weeks.

A satellite image on Tuesday showed four major forest fires raging in An Giang, Dong Thap, and Long An provinces in the Mekong Delta and Gia Lai in the Central Highlands, the lowest number of fires in several days, the agency reported.

Do Thanh Hai, a senior official FPD blamed the fires on a drought that has left Vietnam's north-western provinces with almost no rainfall from October to February.

"Such a long-lasting drought is somewhat strange," Tuoi Tre quoted Hai as saying. "Dry weather and high temperatures are coinciding with the time when farmers burn their fields to prepare for cultivation, which creates a serious risk of forest fires."

The dry season, which normally arrives in November, hit Vietnam's northwestern mountains a month early this year, affecting river flows and agriculture while drying out the region's forests.

Northern Vietnam has experienced a severe drought this winter associated with a strong El Nino, according to Earth Times News. The Red River in Hanoi was measured at its lowest level in more than 100 years this January.

The only bit of good news Tuan had was that he said the fires season in the north was now reaching its peak and the flames were expected to die down by mid-April when the rains come.

The Central Highlands experiences a dry season from April to September, but while the forest fire season has yet to hit the region, several provinces there have reported fires recently.

Flames fanned

Two residents were killed while extinguishing a forest fire with park rangers and paramilitary forces in Lai Chau Province over the weekend as nationwide forest fire alerts reached a crescendo expected to last for weeks.

Fire fighters take a break while extinguishing a fire at the Hoang Lien Forest in Lao Cai Province early this month

According to provincial park rangers, 24-year-old Ly Dau Quay was killed by a rockslide March 7 as he fought a fire in a mountainous forest in Ma Ly Pho Commune, Phong Tho District. Vu A Lai, 44, from Than Uyen District was killed in another forest fire on March 9.

On Tuesday, authorities in the southern province of Kien Giang reported that 40 hectares of forest on Phu Quoc Island had been burned by a fire on Monday, raising the total number of forest fires on the island to 13 so far in this dry season.

Truong Thanh Hao, head of Phu Quoc District Forest Protection Agency, said Phu Quoc losses were the highest ones of protected forest recorded this year. "More than 6,500 hectares of protected forest are now on high fire alert," he added.

Drought has also parched forests and fields in the Mekong Delta.

In the Mekong Delta's Ca Mau Province, a majority of the 40,749- hectare U Minh Ha National Park has been set on high forest fire alert after 1,000 hectares were destroyed in a blaze early this month.

Le Hoang Huong, director of nearby U Minh Thuong National Park, also said the forest had been closed to the public and that employees of local tourism agencies had been called upon to act as temporary forest rangers for extra vigilance against the outbreak of any fire.

Tuan of the Forest Protection Department said a cold spell in the northern provinces early this week had calmed the forest fire threat in the region but the central region and the Central Highlands remained at serious risk of fire, including Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Nghe An, Quang Binh and Binh Dinh.

Limited means

Tuan of FPD said several planes and helicopters had been needed to drop water and fire retardants on the Hoang Lien Forest fire early this month. But he said local authorities lacked the funds to hire the aircrafts and that park rangers had mostly been fighting the fires manually.

"Suppressing a forest fire manually is difficult, but it's still effective in mountainous areas," he said.

"Each fire-fighting plane costs up to US$30 million and it would be difficult to invest in them. We should focus on preventive measures and fighting fires on the ground."

He said the agency was implementing a project to improve fire departments and fire alert systems. The project included equipping fire departments with helicopters, but most of the plans focused on rescue missions, he added.

Tuan said mountainous terrain had prevented park rangers from reaching certain fires until 5-10 hours after the blazes broke out.

But he was optimistic about support provided by local residents, who had risen quickly to the task of fighting fires even though they've only been promised VND25,000 ($1.3) a day.

"We mobilized residents to fight the Hoang Lien fire but they have yet to be paid. However, locals are always ready to help. They also gave fire fighters some 7,000 banh chung (squared-shape glutinous rice cake) and other foods. They have also supplied some 2,000 machetes to chop down trees to keep fires from spreading," he said.

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