Thai hill tribe using hi-tech to fight wildfires

The ethnic Karen people of Thailand, who inhabit the mountain forests of the far north, is using modern technology to guard their northern villages and forests against wildfires.

“We are facing many challenges. We are seeing changes due to global warming and other issues. This year, it has been worse than ever before. The air is drier, so the fire does not die,” said Deepunu, a Karen elder from the village of Pa Pae in northern Lamphun province.

As Americans can attest, wildfires have been a growing problem in recent years and can be some of the most difficult types of fires to fight or control. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, climate change has contributed to a doubling of the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western U.S.

In Thailand and neighboring countries, climate change along with human activity has led to a marked increase in wildfires, air pollution and adverse health in recent years. This is especially true as agriculture expands and more forests and fields are burned. While the Thai government has been organizing a regional effort to try and stop the burning, grassroots efforts are just as important.

The 70 families of Pa Pae village live inside a protected forest with permission from the Thai government, which recognizes the area as their traditional home and their role as caretakers of the environment.

To safeguard their forest and their homes, the Karen would embark on regular patrols to try and spot wildfires early enough to fight them before they became widespread.

Now, thanks to mobile phones, cameras, sensors and drones, they are monitoring their area without having trek away from their village. They have plans to erect a water-spraying system later this year to further protect Pa Pae in case a wildfire gets out of control and threatens their homes.

“If this idea works, it will be great because other ethnic villages could replicate it,” said Deepunu.