Malaysia: Northern Sarawak hit by forest fires

STEPHEN THEN The Star 23 Feb 16;

MIRI: Forest fires have so far ravaged at least 404.6ha of land in Kuala Baram district in northern Sarawak – an area roughly the size of 1,000 football fields combined.

As at 2pm yesterday, some 121.4ha (300 acres) of forest were still on fire.

The Air Pollutant Index in the district shot to very unhealthy levels of 300 and 400 yesterday morning as forest fires raged on.

A big fire near the Industrial Training Institute resulted in very dense smoke blown by strong winds into Miri City some 20km away.

Residential houses and commercial centres were hit by dense smog, ashes and strong smell of burnt vegetation.

Sarawak Assistant Minister for Communications Datuk Lee Kim Shin said that the API went up to more than 400 at one point.

As at 3pm, the API was still above 300, he said.

Lee said Kuala Baram has a population of more than 100,000 people.

“The areas affected by the dense smoke are recording high pollutant index. Fire fighters on the ground are doing all they can to contain the flames.

“Aerial water bombings have been increased and we are requesting an even bigger aircraft from the army that can carry at least 6,000 litres of water at a time.

“The worry is that the fires may burn underground since the district has large areas of peat soil,” he said.

Preliminary reports from Bomba indicated that the fires were deliberately set off by people who had trespassed into the forests, he added.

Miri fire chief Supt Law Poh Kiong yesterday morning said the department were resuming aerial water bombing using helicopters while firefighters battle the flames on the ground.

The department had already carried out 60 rounds of aerial water bombing over the past 48 hours but the fires started spreading due to strong winds. Northern Sarawak is being hit by a very hot spell now.

Fire-sparked haze forces closure of training institute in Miri
BERNAMA New Straits Times 22 Feb 16;

KUALA LUMPUR: The Industrial Training Institute (ILP) in Kuala Baram, Miri, was ordered to close today after the air quality there reached the hazardous level this morning due to haze from a fire.

Human Resource and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said he had informed the Department of Environment (DOE) to instruct the ILP to close immediately.

“We will also inform the Education Department to advise schools in the vicinity affected by the haze to close,” he said when contacted.

Over the past week, a has fire raged through more than 80 hectares of forests near the ILP and sparked concern about the haze.

As at 11am, the DOE website showed the Air Pollutant Index (API) reading still at the hazardous level of 321 although it had dropped from 336 recorded at 10am.

Wan Junaidi said DOE personnel and a team of fire-fighters were being stationed at the location to monitor the situation and release water bombs to stop the fire from spreading. -- Bernama

Malaysian Borneo's air quality hits hazardous levels as forest fires rage
The fires have spurred an emergency response from the state fire and rescue department, which is at the same time scrambling to manage nearly 8,000 people displaced by floods.
Channel NewsAsia 22 Feb 16;

KUALA LUMPUR: Forest fires spread over 500 acres in the north of the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo island have raised air pollution to hazardous levels on Monday (Feb 22) in areas close to the inferno, government data showed.

The fires have spurred an emergency response from the state fire and rescue department, which is at the same time scrambling to manage nearly 8,000 people displaced by floods in Sarawak's southern region as of Monday morning, according to the Bernama newswire.

Sensors located in the coastal town of Miri - which is closest to the fires - registered an air pollutant index reading of over 300 parts per million (ppm) as at 9 a.m., though it went down to 185 ppm as at 3 p.m., the data showed. Readings above 300 ppm are deemed a health hazard.

State Fire and Rescue Department director Nor Hisham Mohammad told Reuters that the situation in the north of Malaysia's largest state is "quite bad" and expects the fires to rage for a "minimum of one week".

Sarawak's forests are renowned for being home to eight out of the world's 54 species of hornbills, according to the Sarawak Forestry Corporation, and also to the Orang Utan in some regions of the Bornean state.

Nor Hisham said the fires are unlikely to have affected the local wildlife as their numbers would be small because most of the timber in the area was already harvested.

The fires, however, forced local authorities to evacuate 650 students from an industrial training centre on Sunday, but classes have since resumed on Monday morning, Nor Hisham said.

Nor Hisham said a total of 50 personnel along with two helicopters and two excavators have been deployed and are working round the clock to contain the fires.

The fire and rescue department believes local hunters had started the fires, but are still investigating the matter.

Malaysian Meteorological Department senior officer Mohd Hisham Mohd Anip said the severity of the fires was caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, which typically affects the northern region of Sarawak and the neighbouring state of Sabah.

Forest fires have increased in frequency over the past few years in Sarawak, where there are large tracts of peat soil.

This year's forest fires, however, cover more than double the 200 acres in the same region scorched by forest fires in July last year.

(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

- Reuters

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