Malaysia: ‘Crack the whip to stop open burning’

NICHOLAS CHENG The Star 30 Apr 16;

KUALA LUMPUR: While there are ample laws in place to penalise open burners, the enforcement of these laws is lacking, according to the former director-general of the Fire and Rescue Department Datuk Dr Soh Chai Hock.

He said this resulted in irresponsible people continuing to carry out open burning every year without fear of fines and firemen having to repeatedly deal with situations that could have been avoided.

Soh, who led the agency through the 1997 haze crisis, said that the strict enforcement which helped stop the pollution then was not being carried out now.

While he did not name the government agency responsible, it is understood that enforcing open burning laws came under the purview of the Department of Environment (DOE).

Those found guilty of open burning could be fined up to RM5,000 or jailed for up to five-years or both under Section 29A of the Environmental Quality Act 1974.

Soh said the agency concerned had to start cracking the whip to stop the open burning that was contributing to the current widespread forest fires and haze.

“Or else the message will never work,” he said.

“If the law is under the agency, it is their duty to enforce it. If they don’t and things go wrong, they are liable too.”

“Bomba does not have the power to enforce, we can only help extinguish the fires but we are always the ones at the forefront.

“Do you know how much money and manpower have to be put down for something that could have been controlled by just making sure people keep to the law?” a frustrated Soh said.

He also suggested that the DOE rope in other agencies like the police, local councils, Rela and the Department of Civil Defence to help it enforce its laws against open burning.

Open burning cases have spiked in the country since the heatwave began in February.

This month alone, firemen responded to 6,831 open burning cases, with Selangor and Johor accounting for the highest number.

Soh said that firefighters were “going beyond the call of duty and putting themselves at great risk” when it comes to forest fires, claiming that officers here were mostly trained to handle structural fires rather than those in forests.

Doctors reportedly said firemen were exposing themselves to health risks like cancer and heat stroke.

Soh also called on locals to be first responders to help put out smaller fires that had just started instead of letting it build into a bigger problem.

“If fires are now a regular occurrence in forest areas, the formation of first responders and volunteer fire prevention squads is vital to overcome these hazards,” he said.