Indonesia passes first critical period of forest fires, challenges stay

Hans Nicholas Jong The Jakarta Post 12 Jul 16;

Indonesia has passed the first critical period of the annual forest fire season with a relatively low number of 288 hotspots detected throughout the country last week.

By Saturday, the number of hotspots had decreased to just 35, which the government attributed to the combination of wetter weather and constant patrols by the government’s joint task force.

Satellites from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), currently operated from Singapore, detected 1,043 hotspots from Jan. 1 to July 9 this year, which is down 51 percent from the number of hotspots recorded over the same period last year.

The companies suspected of being responsible for recent fires are currently being closely monitored, with the government demanding they put out fires in their respective concession areas within three days.

“During the [post-Ramadhan] holidays, there were fires in concession areas owned by three companies: one in Riau, one in Jambi and one on the border of Jambi and South Sumatra. They were instantly reprimanded,” Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said during an Idul Fitri gathering at the ministry’s office on Monday.

After the government sent letters to the three companies, two companies had succeeded in extinguishing the fires, while the one in Jambi had ongoing fires in its concession area, the minister added.

“The concession area was still on fire in the past two days and we are chasing them [to ask for their responsibility]. If the fires are still there in the next one or two days, I will ask for law enforcement,” Siti said.

While the number of hotspots was decreasing this year, Siti said the government could not sit idly, seeing that the country will enter the second critical period soon.

“We cannot be happy yet, because we have passed the first critical period from March to June, but the next, even more critical period, most likely will be in July, August and September,” she said.

Therefore, the next and even more challenging test would come soon, with drier weather expected.

There was also a possibility for a third critical period in October, according to Siti.

So far this year, much attention has been focused on North Sumatra, a province that is usually not a center of hotspots but that recorded the largest number of hotspots last week with 112, followed by West Sumatra with 47 and Aceh with 29.

Last week, temperatures in North Sumatra reached 36 degrees Celsius, with no rain in the past two weeks.

North Sumatra Forest Care Community (KPHSU) secretary-general Jimmy Panjaitan said the number of hotspots in North Sumatra had increased drastically from only 12 last year.

“The Idul Fitri holidays were used by irresponsible people to burn forests and lands while nobody was paying attention,” he said.

Meanwhile Riau and Bengkulu, usually at the center of the annual land and forest fires, only recorded 26 and 15 hotspots this year, respectively.

“If we look at the scope of the area and the environmental condition, we see that environmental degradation in the Toba Samosir area is already severe,” Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) spokeswoman Khalisah Khalid told The Jakarta Post. “According to our friends in the Walhi North Sumatra chapter, the fires occurred in industrial forest concessions.”

The ministry’s forest fire mitigation director, Raffles Brotestes Panjaitan, said the fires in North Sumatra could still be contained as they were mostly on mineral soils, not peatland, where they would be harder to extinguish.

“It is not as difficult as on peatland, where fire can spread underground. At this time there are only small fires, which are easy to extinguish,” he said.

While the government believes the situation in North Sumatra is still under control, Vice President Jusuf Kalla is scheduled to visit Lake Toba in North Sumatra to plant 1,000 trees on July 29 and July 30, raising the pressure for the provincial government to tackle the fires before the visit.

“Indeed the challenges in Simalungun, North Sumatra, are tough, because the local government is not too cooperative,” Siti said.

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