Fiery Inferno Engulfs Vietnamese National Park

HANOI, Vietnam, April 9, 2002 (ENS) - Thousands of policemen, military personnel, forest rangers and local residents have joined forces to fight a fire eating its way through U Minh Thuong National Park in the southernmost province of Kien Giang.

The forest fire, which officials say started on March 23, has been raging out of control. A report of Vietnam's official news agency VNA today says firefighters have contained the blaze but not before it destroyed an estimated 4,200 hectares (10,378 acres) of peat swamp forest, wiping out about half the national park.

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Fires burning across Vietnam. The southernmost one is the U Minh Thuong fire. (Satellite image courtesy NASA)
Temperatures in the fire's core area have hit 50 degrees Celsius and reached thousands of degrees in the deep layers of burning peat and coal beneath the forest floor.

Combined soaring temperatures and strong winds have occasionally produced large fireballs, endangering the remaining forest and hampering efforts to extinguish the fire.

The smoke is rising from the U Minh Thuong blaze to join the smoke from many fires that currently dot the landscape across much of Southeast Asia, filling the skies with a thick blanket of smoke over much of the region.

This is normally the dry season, and in addition, a drought that has lasted since the El Nino weather pattern of 1998 has limited the availability of fresh water, making firefighting a tough job.

So far, digging ditches around the burning areas has been the only way to halt the spread of the fire.

Firefighters have isolated about 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of virgin and newly planted forest by digging a six metre (20 foot) wide, three metre (10 foot) deep and 10 metre (39 foot) long canal, along which more than 100 pumps are running day and night to provide water for the fire fighting effort. The provincial authorities have mobilized all tractors and pumps owned by residents in neighboring areas to draw water from existing canals criss-crossing the area.

The national park is part of a large area of seasonally flooded Melaleuca swamp forest north and west of Ca Mau town near the shores of the Gulf of Thailand. The peat swamp forests of U Minh comprise a mosaic of forest fragments separated by rice fields, settlements and canals. The northernmost forest fragment is U Minh Thuong which normally floods during the rainy season and dries out in the dry season.

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U Minh Thuong Strictly Protected Zone before the current fire (Photo courtesy Dr. Julian Thompson)
Dr. Julian Thompson, lecturer in physical geography at the University College London who did research in U Minh Thuong in 2001, says the inner forest or Strictly Protected Zone of about 8,130 hectares (20,000 acres) "has been impacted by human activities such as canal construction and logging in addition to frequent fires. The impact of these factors has been the erosion of much of the peat layer around the forest margins."

Describing the area for the World Conservation Union, Le Dien Duc wrote, "In the past, this region was famous for its dense Melaleuca forests. However, during the war years the region suffered serious damage from bombing and the extensive use of napalm and toxic chemicals, and since then, large areas have been cleared for timber and agricultural land or destroyed by forest fires. Only some 63,000 hectares of forest remain, and much of this, such as the U Minh Thuong forest, is in very poor condition."

The cause of the current fire is unknown. Officials say an investigation will take place after the fire is out.