Indonesia: Hot spots hard to find, even harder to put out

Bad roads and peat fires that refuse to die mean there's no quick solution
Joyce Lim And Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja Indonesia Correspondent In Dumai (riau Province)
Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

ON THE map, the red dots marking the hot spots causing the haze seemed near enough.

On the ground, however, it took The Straits Times team 12 hours to visit just three of them.

Another example of the massive scale involved in the worsening haze crisis: One red dot can turn out to be a 3,000ha plantation - about the size of four Ang Mo Kio estates.

The hot spot closest to Dumai is in Pelintung, about 35km away. But it took us more than an hour to get there because the roads were bad.

Finding the hot spot was a problem because many of them cannot be seen from the main road, and a lack of signs makes the task even harder.

Despite mounting frustration in Singapore and Malaysia, it was clear from our travels in recent days that there could be no quick solution to the haze crisis, given the scale and complexity of the problem.

This was something we found out first-hand, after meeting Mr Jaafar Arit, who heads the Bengkalis disaster management agency.

He took us to one of the worst-hit spots in the island regency of Bengkalis, off Dumai.

On the way, we lost count of the number of times our heads hit the roof of the car during the bumpy 3km ride before we came to a massive expanse of scorched plantation.

Firefighters told The Straits Times team that they faced equal difficulty in finding the hot spots and accessing them, even though fighting fires in these plantations has become very much an annual affair.

Mr Jaafar said that his men had had to camp outside the peatland because of the danger that the peat soil could start burning again after it had been put out.

Peat soil, which is made up of decomposed plant material, burns easily and often smoulders underground, making it tough to put out completely.

At one particular hot spot in Bengkalis regency, we were told that firefighters had put out the fire five times, only to see it begin burning again.

"Every time we think that we have put out the fire, it resurfaces," said Mr Jaafar.

"The firefighters are exhausted. It is never-ending. In fact, we have given up on some hot spots. There is no way we can put out the fire completely. We can only wait for rain."

Firefighters also face problems finding a water source as these areas are often undeveloped, he added. "Water pumps breaking down and water shortage are problems we face every day," he said.

He added that the weather conditions this year have been especially challenging. The winds are stronger and keep changing direction, which fans the flames and helps the fire spread faster, he explained.

There was no more raging fire by the time we got to the Bengkalis hot spot.

The flames had been extinguished, leaving a huge expanse of scorched peatland that was still giving off heat and lots of smoke.

At last, we got to see one of the sources of the smoke that has shrouded Singapore and parts of Malaysia and pushed haze readings to record levels in the past week.

Back in Dumai, the Pollutant Standards Index reading shot up to a record 492.

It was so bad that we could actually see dust particles floating in the air.

Dumai fires started by local farmers, says mayor
Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja Indonesia Correspondent In Dumai (riau Province)
Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

AMID a growing row over whether foreign companies are responsible for the fires causing hazardous levels of pollution, a top local official said there are no Singapore plantation companies operating in Dumai.

The fires in Dumai were started by local farmers, said Mr Khairul Anwar, the mayor of Dumai, which is the closest to many of this year's hot spots in Riau province.

In an interview with The Straits Times, the mayor said it was difficult to get these farmers to abide by the law and not start fires to clear the land because they would do anything to protect their oil palm plantations, which are mostly about 2ha and located deep in the forest interior.

There are also farmers who came from the city centre or other regions in Indonesia. As they have deeper pockets, their oil palm plantations are very much bigger - 100ha.

"They may be investors who tied up with foreigners, maybe Singapore or Malaysian nationals, or from other countries," said Mr Khairul. "Many just come in and occupy the land illegally."

While there are no Singapore companies in Dumai, it is not clear if they are operating in other parts of Riau.

The mayor acknowledged that the vast geography made it difficult to police and act against such illegal plantation activity.

Dumai is 90 per cent forest and much of the ground is peat soil, made up of decomposed plant materials. Peat burns easily and often smoulders underground.

The mayor said he had no plans to evacuate residents even if pollution levels worsen, but would appeal to the people to pray for rain.

Meanwhile, in Jakarta, the haze problem is finally getting some media attention after it was overshadowed by a roiling debate over the government's move to cut fuel subsidies.

Dailies like the Jakarta Post and Kompas carried reports of the haze on their front pages, while television news began to feature segments on how the worsening air pollution had prompted flight cancellations or delays in areas like Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province.

The Jakarta Globe yesterday also reported the first known death related to the fires in Riau.

According to the daily newspaper, a man living in Rokan Hilir was killed and his wife seriously injured after they were caught in a fire. The man died of burns, and his wife remained in a critical condition, the Globe reported without further elaboration.

Riau in state of emergency due to haze
Rizal Harahap, The Jakarta Post 21 Jun 13;

The government finally declared a state of emergency in Riau starting on Friday following worsening haze from forest fires in three regencies and municipalities in the province.

The haze is from forest fires in the regencies of Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir and Dumai City.

“The President has instructed the National Disaster Mitigation Agency [BNPB] to take over fire extinguishing efforts in Riau, starting on Friday,” the BNPB emergency response director Tri Budiarto said on Friday.

The agency said it had deployed two helicopters on Friday to spray water from the air and one aircraft for cloud seeding efforts in the burning areas, starting on Saturday.

Riau Deputy Governor Mambang Mit added that cloud seeding efforts would be the last solution because the conventional techniques had met difficulties extinguishing the fires.

“The weather conditions, which are very dry and windy, and the locations of fires, which are inaccessible to vehicles, have slowed efforts to put out the fires. The only solution is cloud seeding,” he said.

He said that the Riau administration was currently investigating the involvement of some firms in the forest fires.

He did not deny the fact that in the previous years a number of plantation companies made use of the dry weather to clear their areas for planting.

“The authorities will take strong measures against them if there is enough evidence,” he said, adding that the legal process would be handled by the police.

According the data from the Forestry Ministry, the total areas gutted by the fires have reached 3,709 hectares in 10 out 12 regencies and municipalities in Riau, where Rokan Hilir and Bengkalis have been the most heavily affected. (hrl)