Tuesday, February 27, 2007


We learned last week, first hand as it were, about an annual tradition that goes on over just about all of Southeast Asia: burning the forests.

Villagers everywhere for the past several weeks have been setting fires to sections of forest all over northern Thailand. Consequently the air quality has suffered on most days and our distant mountain vistas have retreated into the haze. Makes for spectacular sunsets, though...

In this traditional practice, the forests are not completely burned down, at least not intentionally. They burn the understory, which, if left to it's own devices, would in a short time make passage through the forest impossible. This allows the villagers to take advantage of the diverse forest economy, as it provides fuelwood, building materials, food such as game, root vegetables and mushrooms, as well as medicinal herbs, barks and roots.

Until last week we just marveled a bit at the tongues of flame ringing distant mountain tops in the countryside around Pun Pun, visible late into the night. But on one sunny afternoon, just as I had finished my lunch and was enjoying a cup of tea, the call came from Baan Thai: "Help us stop a fire!"

So we all jumped up, grabbed hoes and shovels, and ran across the hill and down the dirt path than connects the two communities. Some villagers had gotten a bit overzealous in their forest clearing tradition and the blaze was quickly converging on Baan Thai's mango orchard.

Being a community of mostly do-nothing hippies, Baan Thai had let the grasses in their orchard grow dangerously high. If the flames spread too far from the adjoining forest and caught the grass, Christian's house -- a beautiful adobe and thatch domicile -- would surely be consumed.

Here are some photos I managed to take of our efforts to quell the blaze. I was doing about equal parts photo-taking and hoeing under potential forest-fire fuel -- ever vigilant to maintain full documentation of events and journalistic integrity for you, dear blog reader...

All hands on deck, frantically hoeing a fire-break...

Nick and Brant get into the thick of it...

The heroic Pi Jeni single-handedly beats out the blaze with a shoot he broke off a banana tree. This man is unstoppable.

Just when I was starting to worry, one of the villagers showed up with a tractor and dug out a big swath of fire break, pronto.

He was wearing this black ski-mask to protect himself from the smoke and looked like some kind of crazed Zapatista as he plowed up and down the hillside.

Here you can see the burned-over area on the right, Baan Thai's mango grove on the left, and the narrow dirt fire break in between that stopped the fire's advance.

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