ARRIVING in Rokan Hilir (Riau), the visibility was 20 metres. The district comprising thousands of hectares of oil palm was blanketed in thick smoke from burning trees.
Rokan Hilir is the scene of the worst fires in Riau that started two weeks ago, razing thousands of hectares of land.
“The smoke in Malaysia comes from here,” said Lukmansyam, head of the Rokan Hilir Forest Police.
“The fires are going to spread,” said Jai of the Indonesian Environmental Forum.
So thick was the smoke that at times cars seemed to disappear into the haze.
When I stepped out of the car with a mask, my eyes stung immediately and I hurriedly put on my sunglasses. I resembled a soldier preparing for gas warfare in a war zone, minus a marines bulk and muscle.
Before long, I felt my throat tightening and my eyes and nose running.
The villagers, however, wore no masks and walked along the road unperturbed. The haze made for a surreal atmosphere, like a scene from a ghost movie; figures appearing and disappearing in the murk.
“The villagers here burn the land,” said a tired-looking Jumali of the Manggala Agni fire-fighting brigade which has been dousing flames for the past five days.
His team of nine men were backed up by more than 250 soldiers and policemen.
Jumali and his men work non-stop, running up and down, pumping water from a river and then directing the hose at the peat soil where fires burn as deep as three metres underground.
“Were doing the best we can but there is not much we can do. Only the rain can put the fires out completely,” said Jumali.
Riau is Indonesias richest province. Oil and gas pipelines run for hundreds of kilometres and there were concerns that the pipelines were in danger from fires and could add another fiery dimension to the disaster.
Yesterday, Caltex, which operates in Riau, sent two water trucks to help douse the fires which were burning near the pipelines in Rokan Hilir.
Meanwhile, Indonesians were actively phoning local TV stations to air their views on the fires and resultant haze in Malaysia.
Many of them blamed Malaysia for the fires, pointing their fingers at Malaysian-owned oil palm plantations in Riau as the culprit.
“If Malaysian companies burn the land, then Malaysia has to accept the haze blown over to their country.
“Whats more, Malaysians are involved in illegal logging and accept illegal logs from Indonesia. So it is just that they get the haze,” said a viewer who phoned in to the local Metro TV.