RFD steps into blaze row

Forest fire ruled out as death toll hits 37

The Royal Forest Department (RFD) has dismissed claims that Friday's refugee camp inferno was caused by a forest fire, as none had been reported nearby when the blaze broke out at the camp.

Karen refugees attend a prayer service for those killed on Friday in the inferno at Ban Mae Surin refugee camp in Mae Hong Son’s Khun Yuam district yesterday. The bodies of those killed will be buried today. THITI WANNAMONTHA

"Local forestry officials have insisted no forest fire occurred in the area that day," RFD deputy director-general Rerngchai Prayoonwet said.

Almost 40 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the blaze at Mae Surin camp, which is situated in Mae Surin forest reserve and Doi Wiang Lah wildlife sanctuary and is home to about 3,000 refugees.

Witnesses told police that they saw embers being blown by the wind land on the thatched roof of a refugee house, sparking a fire which quickly spread to other houses.

However, officials from the RFD and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, which oversee forest land in Khun Yuam district, believe the fire started inside the camp.

Mae Hong Son governor Naruemon Palawat said yesterday she had directed Khum Yuam police to investigate the cause of the fire.

She said while a forest fire had not been ruled out, police believed the blaze may have been caused by people cooking. Arson has been ruled out.

The fire broke out in Zone 1 and Zone 4 of the camp about 4pm and was brought under control about 6pm.

Authorities yesterday stopped searching for bodies, with the official death toll at 37 with 115 injured.

The latest casualty was a male refugee who was seriously injured and succumbed at Nakornping Hospital in Chiang Mai yesterday, Khun Yuam assistant district chief Samreong Sudsawat said.

The 37 dead victims comprise 21 males and 16 females. Ten of the dead were children. Nineteen of the injured refugees were seriously hurt.

Pol Maj Gen Chamnan Ruadraew, deputy commander of the Provincial Police Region 5, said officials were working to identify the dead. A Christian burial rite was held for the victims yesterday.

More than 400 makeshift houses at the Mae Surin camp were ruined, leaving more than 2,300 refugees homeless.

Two firefighters were also killed and five others seriously injured as they raced to tackle the Mae Surin blaze when the six-wheel lorry they were travelling in plunged into a ravine between kilometre markers 83 and 84 in Pai district.

The camp is one of nine refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border set up more than two decades ago to offer asylum to ethnic Karen fleeing the fighting between the Myanmar army and rebel troops.

Governor Naruemon said the refugees' houses will be rebuilt on their original location because a stream flows through the area year-round.

The refugees themselves also had no desire to move, she said. Construction of the houses is expected to be completed in a month.

Humanitarian assistance from the state and private sectors continues to pour in for the refugees, with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees preparing food.

Soldiers from the Armed Forces Development Command have set up kitchens at Khun Yuam municipality office. More than 1,000 packets of food were taken to the camp by helicopter.

Public Health Minister Pradit Sintawanarong yesterday said the ministry had sent disease control units to curb the spread of malaria at a temporary shelter set up nearby to house the refugees left homeless by the fire.

Psychiatrists have also been sent to help refugees affected by the blaze and a team of sanitation officials has been assigned to ensure proper hygienic conditions at the shelter.

Haze and thick smoke from forest fires in the region grounded a planned helicopter trip to the stricken camp yesterday morning by a group of officials led by Interior Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan and Chatchai Promlert, director-general of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department.

The officials had planned to fly from Chiang Mai to visit the camp.

Meanwhile, five firefighters are in hospital after getting hurt tackling forest fires. Four are being treated at Nakornping Hospital and one is being treated at Maharaj Nakorn Chiang Mai Hospital.

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