Indonesia forest fires well-managed, fewer hotspots this year: Minister

Saifulbahri Ismail Channel NewsAsia 22 Sep 16;

JAKARTA: Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar has said that the forest fires this year have been well-managed as seen by the reduction of hotspots of up to 88 per cent as compared to 2015.

Giving an update on the forest fires this year to lawmakers at the House of Representative on Thursday (Sep 22), Dr Siti Nurbaya said slight haze only occurred for a few days in August.

“Last year, there was thick haze (for) up to three months, but this year, slight thick haze happened between Aug 26 and 29 in Rokan Hulu, which affected Singapore for a few hours," said Dr Siti Nurbaya. She added that hotspots in Riau province went down by up as much as 81 per cent.

The land areas devastated by the fires were also much less this year. Dr Siti Nurbaya said more than 274,000 hectares were affected by forest fires across the archipelago, compared to more than 2 million hectares last year.

The fires also cost the government significantly much less money this year.

Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) said that to date, it spent just about US$23 million fighting the flames. This is about 60 per cent less than what was spent during the massive fires in 2015, a year that saw the haze reach critical levels.

Last year's forest fires that destroyed swathes of land and contaminated air quality were one of the worst on record.

BNPB, whose job is to put out the fires, spent about US$57 million in 2015. That figure goes up even higher after taking into account the cost incurred by others involved in the firefighting effort, such as the Environment and Forestry Ministry, the army and police.

“Last year, about 1 trillion rupiah (was spent), because the forest fires were widespread and we had to use more from the budget, as compared with this year,” said BNPB's head of data, information and public relations, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

“If we look at the number of hotspots ... there are no rampant fires in several of the provinces. All have been managed by the government," he added.

At the peak of the crisis last year, there were about 2,000 hotspots on record each day. This year, there are much fewer of them. Satellite images show that in the last 48 hours, there were only 131 hotspots across the whole of Indonesia.

In August, when forest fires started to affect the air quality in Indonesia and the region, BNPB said it would be able to put out most of them by October. It is still confident this can be done, especially with the promise of more rain in the weeks ahead.

"We got lucky because the weather is on our side," said Yuyun Indradi, team leader of Greenpeace Indonesia’s Political Forest Campaign. "So, it's a wet-dry season and later on in October it will be the real wet season. So, we expect there will be no more fire."

The forest fires this year may not be as bad as 2015 but this is no guarantee of clear skies next year. “It’s not possible to have zero hotspots because the satellite detects not only big forest fires but also fires on factory rooftops,” said Dr Sutopo. “Small fires set by farmers are also considered as hotspots."

Green activists hope that the government will do more to ensure clear skies, and not rely too much on just divine intervention. "If (the government) does not want to see anymore hotspots, it has to be more serious (about) regulating, monitoring (and) enforcing the law,” said Yuyun Indradi.

But the Environment and Forestry Minister refuted claims that the lower hotspot numbers were primarily because of the wet weather. “The National Disaster Mitigation Agency still deployed 22 aircraft this year. Last year, between 27 and 29 aircraft were used. So, there were still intensive efforts to fight the fires,” said Dr Siti Nurbaya.

- CNA/ec