The monks came back from fighting their first forest fire in Kompong Chhnang province more or less intact.
A few had seared holes in their saffron cotton robes, some had minor burns on their arms and legs and all complained of intense heat around their feet and ankles.
But other than that, their journey into the brush surrounding Kangrey mountain in Kompong Leng district—an area particularly prone to forest fires in the height of the dry season—was a success, according to monk Hiek Sopheap, whose Association of Buddhists for the Environment established a network of fire-fighting monks in 2006. The fire was contained and then extinguished.
“People say monks should not fight fires, but still they try. They have to stop the fires,” he said.
Hiek Sopheap, who founded ABE in 2005 along with nine other environmentally conscious monks, said that the major tenets of Buddhism teach a fundamental appreciation for nature. ABE’s team of fire-fighting monks is one of the organization’s many initiatives linking dharma, or Buddhist teachings, with environmental activism.
What began in 2006 as a group of 10 monks setting out toward a fire that threatened to destroy hectares of forest in Kompong Leng has now grown into an effort that spans four communes—Por, Trangil, Dar and Chranouk—and includes more than 20 monks from four pagodas, said Long Sarou, ABE project manager.
When a fire breaks out in the area, the pagoda nearest the blaze mobilizes, beckoning villagers to the cause by using pagoda loudspeakers usually reserved for Buddhist ceremonies, said Hiek Sopheap.
The monks are self-trained and use bunches of fresh leaves to beat out the fires—most of which are small-scale, he said.
“We don’t have [much] water to carry to the fire…. We have no helicopter,” said Hiek Sopheap.
Van Sokhim, 31, chief of community forestry and a monk at Wat Kiri Pheakdei pagoda in Por commune’s Samroang village, said his first fire—which occurred in 2003 before the formal organization of the fire-fighting team—was a rather dodgy experience, with the monks figuring out how to safely combat the flames as they went along.
“It was scary. It was a strong fire,” he said, adding that some of the monks’ robes caught on fire that day. But they learned important lessons that have subsequently been put into action, including the need to approach fires from upwind to avoid the flames being blown towards them.
Now, Van Sokhim makes sure his crew comes prepared.
“We bring along some water—about 30 liters—knives and fresh leaves,” he said. Villagers have started joining them in increasing numbers as well, with about 25 villagers assisting at the most recent fire in April.
ABE uses about $500 of its overall budget—approximately $90,000 a year from several donors including the UN Development Program and USAID through environmental NGOs Wildlife Alliance and Conservation International—to provide the monks with water and sustenance on their treks into the forest, as well as protective footwear, said Hiek Sopheap.
When combating a fire, the monks take off their flowing outer robes, but leave on their under robes, which they are not supposed to remove unless inside their living quarters.
Most forest fires in Cambodia occur during the height of the dry season from January to March, according to environmental officials. Some are started by natural events like lightning, but the majority are man-made.
Long Sarou said many people around Kangrey mountain start fires in order to facilitate hunting.
Wayne McCallum, community engagement adviser for Conservation International, said that fresh vegetation springs to life in the wake of a destructive forest fire, which in turn attracts animals.
“Burning stimulates the new growth and makes animals easier to see,” he wrote by e-mail on Monday.
McCallum said people often casually light fires in the forest in an attempt to open up the land. The more controlled slash-and-burn, or chamkar, farming method is also widely practiced and consists of cutting and burning forest in order to create fields that can be farmed or serve as pastures for livestock.
“Some chamkar fires get out of control and can spread further into non-cut forest and even people’s properties,” McCallum said.
Chan Kimseng, director of the Interior Ministry’s Weapons Control and Firefighter Department, said each province and municipality has its own team to extinguish fires that get out of hand. He added that most wild fires are contained by clearing a strip of vegetation in the path of the flames rather than using water—which is a precious commodity in most parts of Cambodia.
“In the jungle, for hundreds of years, this is how it has been,” he said.
Chan Kimseng said he thinks the monks’ initiative is a good one, provided they can implement it safely.
Senior monk Kim Sorn, an assistant to Supreme Patriarch Non Nget, said Wednesday that fire-fighting monks are acting in accordance with Buddhist principles.
“It is the saving of animals,” he said. “We don’t destroy the forests. If we [did], it would be a sin.”
But despite all the active firefighting they have done, it is perhaps the monks’ spiritual and moral clout that has proven most effective in preventing forest fires.
Hiek Sopheap said the Kangrey mountain area has seen only four fires during the two dry seasons since the monks formally mobilized in early 2006—approximately halving the number of fires per year. Van Sokhim attributed that decrease to a newfound embarrassment among villagers about casually starting fires.
“They have been ashamed of themselves when the monks try to put out the fire,” he said.