Indonesia steps up fight against fires as hot spots increase

JAKARTA (The Straits Times/ANN) -  Smoke detected in Riau, West and Central Kalimantan; Singapore's NEA tracking situation

The Indonesian authorities are stepping up efforts to battle forest fires as the number of hot spots has climbed steadily in the past weeks and smoke has blanketed parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan since last week.

At least 644 hot spots were detected across the archipelago from July 31 to Aug 6, and the figure rose about 16 per cent to 749 from Aug 7 to 13, according to the Environment Ministry's forest fire monitoring system. In West Kalimantan, the figure rose by 172 per cent to 429 over the same period.

Smoke was detected in the provinces of Riau, which is close to Singapore, West Kalimantan, which shares a land border with Malaysia, and Central Kalimantan yesterday, said Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysical Agency.

On Monday, students were sent home as smoke blanketed Central Kalimantan's provincial capital Palangkaraya and the PSI air quality measurement jumped to 495, indicating hazardous conditions. Prevailing winds were blowing from the south-east northwards towards Malaysia. The agency said it also detected the first transboundary smoke this year in the area bordering West Kalimantan and Malaysia's Sarawak.

The emergency response team has deployed two more helicopters for water bombing, bringing the overall units deployed nationwide to 36, said National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) acting spokesman Agus Wibowo.

The additional aircraft will fight fires in West Kalimantan and South Sumatra, which are among the country's most fire-prone regions.

Dr Agus added that the military would also aid the intensive effort with Hercules aircraft.

"We are carrying out water bombing on a daily basis now," he told The Straits Times. "We are worried about a repeat (of the 2015 fire crisis) and we are all trying to end the (existing) fires."

In 2015, raging fires in Riau and parts of Sumatra spread choking haze into parts of Singapore and Malaysia for over a month.

In other efforts, the State Intelligence Agency will be involved in finding out the perpetrators of land and forest fires, and law enforcement will be intensified, Dr Agus said.

On Monday, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, along with BNPB chief Doni Monardo, National Police chief Tito Karnavian and Indonesian military commander Hadi Tjahjanto, visited Riau to monitor forest-fire handling on the ground. Air Chief Marshal Hadi vowed to take action against those caught lighting fires.

The police have so far tackled 68 cases and arrested 60 suspects, National Police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said separately yesterday.

Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) is also closely monitoring wind direction in the region. "Singapore may be affected by smoke haze if the winds change to blow from the south-west or west. NEA is monitoring the situation closely and will provide updates when necessary," said the agency in a statement yesterday.

"For the next few days, the prevailing winds are forecast to continue blowing from the south-east or south. Although brief showers are forecast over parts of northern and central Sumatra, the hot-spot activities are expected to persist."

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