Asia Pacific / Offbeat

With few blazes to fight, firefighter at north Bangkok station spends time catching snakes in people's homes


A fire department in northern Bangkok has not been called out to put out a fire since June. But for trapping a slithery foe? There is a 24-hour hotline.

“We have had several calls asking us to come and catch snakes,” said Suraphong Suepchai, a 46-year-old firefighter working in the Thai capital’s Lat Yao district. “But we have had no calls asking us to fight a fire,” he added.

Snakes are a common sight in Bangkok, a bustling city built on what was once swampy land, and it is not unusual to see them slithering across public spaces like parks, canals and schools.

But residents might also encounter them in their homes, especially if they have rats.

The calls to Suraphong’s fire department increase during the rainy season after new hatchlings are born.

If venomous snakes are caught during their calls, they are brought to the Bangkok Snake Farm near the center of the city.

As for harmless snakes, Suraphong said he tries to explain to people that it’s good to have them around to keep a balanced ecosystem.

“If we kill all the snakes and they disappear, rats will come and bring diseases,” he said, adding that these are brought to a nearby university park to be released.

To assuage the fear of locals, the fire department conducts training sessions for anyone who wants to learn how to handle serpents that have temporarily invaded their homes.

According to 2016 figures from the Health Ministry, more than 1,700 people in Thailand were bitten by snakes, although none died.

During one of the sessions, residents armed with thick gloves attempted to subdue a harmless garden snake — or a hissing cobra — as it suddenly struck at them abruptly.

“They’re not as dangerous as I thought,” said Kanoksak Preechakorn, 42. “Now that I know the catching techniques, we don’t need to kill them.”

Wrangling pythons was not what Suraphong expected to be doing when he started working at the station, but he is thankful that fires rarely occur in his district.

“Firefighting is a job in which sometimes we have to face reality when people lose their lives,” he said. “But when it comes to catching snakes, people are very grateful to us, and it’s fun.”