Indonesia: Assessment of 1997 Land and Forest Fires in Indonesia

Assessment of 1997 Land and Forest Fires in Indonesia:
National Coordination

(IFFN No. 18 – January 1998, p. 4-12)

Abstract The report describes the 1997 land and forest fires in Indonesia, reviews of the control measures put in place and evaluates the national coordination efforts taken to combat the fires as the dry period extended toward what became a serious drought. A key finding is that virtually all of the fires burning in forests and lands in Indonesia are caused by man and as such are manageable and preventable. The fire disaster experienced in 1997 is a result of traditional and commercially-based broadcast burning exacerbated by the delay in onset of normal monsoon rains. The report concludes with recommendations for immediate and long-term activities to manage the land and forest fires.


Indonesia ranks third, after Brazil and Zaire, in its area of tropical forest. Of Indonesia’s total land area of 1.9 million km2, current forest cover estimates range from 0.9 to 1.2 million km2, or 48 to 69% of the total. Indonesia’s forests are a major component of the national economy, providing significant wood product exports, employment, domestic usage and non-timber resources. While forests continue to dominate the landscape in Indonesia, other land use types are expanding in area, including bush and scrub lands, grasslands, areas of shifting cultivation, areas under permanent agriculture and settlements.

Large areas of land and forest in Indonesia burned in 1982 and 1983. In Kalimantan alone, the fires burned from 2.4 to 3.6 million ha of forest. Land and forest fires also burned in Indonesia during extended dry periods in 1987 (49,323 ha), 1991 (118,881 ha) and 1994 (161,798 ha). The fire areas in 1987, 1991 and 1994 were larger than during years with normal rainfall, but not nearly as large as the area burned during the extended drought from June of 1982 to April 1983 in East Kalimantan.

Monitoring and Assessment of 1997 Fires

Monitoring in Indonesia (by agencies described below) indicated that the fires burning in 1997 appeared to be mainly the result of fire used to clear forest and land for agricultural and forestry purposes. The distribution of burning activities is indicated by the presence of ‘hot spots’ which are monitored by detecting thermal differences (>52° C) on night-time images from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite. When the satellite images are overlaid with land use and concession boundary maps, the major activities associated with hot spots are revealed. For example, in Riau Province hot spots were found mostly in small (80% of hot spots) and large (20%) scale tree crop plantations, followed by industrial forest plantations. A small percentage of hot spots occurred in transmigration settlements and areas known to contain shifting cultivation.

Based on daily monitoring the number of hot spots increased starting in May 1997, reached a maximum in September and declined rapidly from October to December (Figure 1). The greatest concentrations of hot spots in Indonesia during the 1997 dry period occurred in the seven Provinces of Riau, South Sumatra and Jambi in Sumatra, and East, South, Central and West Kalimantan. The 1997 records also show that a large number (72%) of hot spots were located in relatively few administrative Districts (11%) and over a small land area (30%) throughout western Indonesia (Fig.1).

The area of land and forest burned in Indonesia from year to year is related to both land development policies and dry season length. The dry season in 1997 extended past the normal limit of September, leading to larger fires and fires migrating from cleared land into forests. According to preliminary field observations in October by the Ministry of Forestry, approximately 1,654 km2 of forest burned in Indonesia during 1997. A far higher “guesstimate” of up to 20,000 km2 has been commonly stated for areas including both land and forest. An accurate determination of the extent of fire damage can only be derived from detailed analysis of aerial images combined with field checks. This type of analysis was completed in South Sumatra in December 1997 by the European Union-sponsored Forest Fire Prevention and Control Project and the Ministry of Forestry. Their analysis suggests that up to 25% (27,980 km2) of the Province was affected by fire in 1997. The burned area includes 7,010 km2 of forest which is 86 times greater than the preliminary estimate for the Province from the October field observations. The large burned area in South Sumatra is consistent with the 1997 hot spot pattern for western Indonesia. South Sumatra contained five of the 15 Districts in which the greatest number of hot spots were recorded.

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Fig.1. Pattern of hot spot occurrences in 24 Provinces and cities in western Indonesia during 1997. About 82% of the total recorded hot spots were located in seven Provinces. Moreover, about 72% were located in 15 Districts occupying an area of 423,641 km2, or less than 30% of the total land monitored in western Indonesia.

Caution is required in using hot spot data from satellite images to detect and evaluate fire conditions. Hot spots often do not show under heavy haze or cloud cover. Also, the total number counted on images taken during the day decreases on similar images taken at night, probably due to diurnal changes in humidity. Hot spots may represent heat sources other than from land and forest fires, including burning coal seams, gas flares, and activities in and around settlements.

The impacts from uncontrolled wildfires are severe at all levels. Locally, the health and safety of the people who suffer from the effects of smoke and haze is most serious, and in some cases loss of life has resulted. At the regional and national levels, commerce is disrupted, particularly that of transportation. The damage to natural resources including soil, water, timber and wildlife is large. Land and forest burning causes several well understood impacts to Indonesia’s land and biological resources. At the simplest level, moist evergreen forests are not well adapted to fire. High heat can kill trees. Fire removes the shade required for regeneration and can eliminate seed sources. In disturbed areas, repeated burning promotes fire resistant vegetation (e.g., Imperata, Macaranga), soil nutrient depletion and erosion. Fire has been estimated to now affect vegetation and soils in over one third of Indonesia’s land area. Finally, the impact of the fires reaches the world stage, not only through the short term effects of smoke and haze, but of even greater concern, the loss of the carbon sequestered in peatlands that will take millennia for nature to replace. The contribution of these fires to global climate change, both in the short and long term, remains unknown.


The basis for this assessment is the internationally recognized Integrated Forest Fire Management System (IFMS). The IFMS is a modern approach to forest fire suppression that integrates all facets of fire management and is reflective of the values at risk. It is a system used by most mature fire organizations around the globe and is based on four principles including: 1) a central command and control organization structure, 2) accurate data for decisions, 3) early detection of new fires, and 4) aggressive initial attack by ground and air.

Infrastructure and Government Policies
Following the forest fires during the 1994 dry period, the a National Coordinating Team for Land and Forest Fire Control (TKNPKHL) was formed. The Team is headed by the Minister of State for the Environment and the Director General of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHPA). Members of the TKNPKHL include senior officials from the Ministries of Home Affairs, Mining and Energy, Agriculture, Transmigration, Social Affairs, National Aerospace Agency (LAPAN), National Development Planning Agency (BAPENAS), and the Agency for the Technology Assessment and Application (BPPT). The Deputy Head of the team and the Secretariat are located at the Indonesian Environmental Impact Management Agency (BAPEDAL). The Team’s activities include: organizing local capability and coordination to prepare for fires; formulating regulations and guidelines for land clearing without burning; developing techniques to control fire using various management approaches; operating a fire detection and early warning system; communicating and cooperating with international agencies and foreign countries affected by smoke and haze.

BAPEDAL, in its capacity as secretariat of the TKNPKHL, established an emergency command post (POSKO) to coordinate efforts to control land and forest fires during the extended dry period in 1997. The main activities of the POSKO are to act as the central body to collect, analyze and disseminate information about land and forest fires throughout Indonesia.

Under normal fire conditions the TKNPKHL provides technical input and information to provincial coordinating teams (PUSDALKARHUTLA) which further instruct District teams (SATLAK) and units (SATGAS) in the field. Fire suppression teams are the responsibility of each individual land user or concessionaire. For example, National Parks under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Forestry have forest rangers who also work on fire suppression when required. Commercial activities such as tree crop and forest plantations or natural forest concessions must also employ trained teams responsible for fire suppression within their jurisdiction.

With the onset of the extended dry season in 1997, it became evident to the TKNPKHL that control activities would need strengthening. The following actions were initiated since February 1997.

Elevate Status to Fire Disaster BAPEDAL began detecting, monitoring, analyzing and communicating fire and smoke information in February 1997. The TKNPKHL established in August a formal control center (POSKO) and was on 24-hour alert until November. A POSKO for fire control operations was also established by the Coordinating Agency for National Emergencies (BAKORNAS PB).

By March, several national media sources (radio, television, newspapers) were requested to allocate daily attention to fire information and warnings. Information on fire conditions was forwarded to local government agencies and local military commands for investigation and control. Several cases of burning were investigated directly by the TKNPKHL.

Place Moratorium On Land Clearing and Burning Regulations on land clearing without the use of fire were issued by several sectoral Departments. At the request of the Minister of Environment, the President of Indonesia declared a ban on all land clearing activities.

Use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to Identify and Coordinate Fire Control Activities GIS was used by the TKNPKHL to monitor and track forest fire locations and to identify land owners in fire areas. The GIS integrates monitoring information regularly submitted by several Departments and Agencies including Forestry, Agriculture, LAPAN and BMG.

Publicize Names of Companies Using Fire to Clear Land Several burning cases were reported in the media. Responsible companies were required to explain their situations to BAPEDAL. Several investigations of illegal land and forest burning have were initiated. Proceedings are underway for prosecution and several licenses have been revoked.

Request Weekly Reports From Governors An emergency action plan was submitted to the Governors of the seven fire prone Provinces. The plan outlined how fire control is to be coordinated, implemented, monitored and reported. The Governors were also requested to elevate the status of the fire problem throughout government offices and in the media.

The Business Sector Must Show Initiatives to Control Fires During meetings in May and September between BAPEDAL and senior representatives of the forest industry, commitments were declared to stop all burning during land clearing. Concession owners were required to submit weekly reports of land clearing and burning in and adjacent to their concessions.

Assess and Implement Air-based and Ground-based Suppression A program was implemented to induce rain in Riau Province by cloud seeding. A similar program was implemented in Malaysia. International experts in forest fire control arrived in September to assist the TKNPKHL Team to evaluate ground-based and air-based fire suppression methods for Indonesian conditions.

Strengthen International Dialogue and Cooperation The TKNPKHL Team received daily hot spot, visibility and haze monitoring information from several government agencies in Singapore and Malaysia.

When the Government declared the fires a disaster on 15 September 1997, the National Coordinating Board for Disaster Response (BAKORNAS PB) was mobilized to serve as the focal-point for operational instructions to all government and military units. BAKORNAS is headed by the Coordinating Minister for Social Welfare. Numerous organizations became involved including the armed forces, police, local governments, youth organizations and environmental interest organizations. During this critical period, the TKNPKLH concentrated on collecting, analyzing and disseminating information about the fires.

Fire Information Management

Information about forest and land fires in Indonesia flows through several agencies. The dominant centres controlling information flow are the command posts (POSKO) operating at the Ministry of Forestry (PHPA) and at the central BAPEDAL. Information generated by Forestry flows mainly in a bottom-up direction, as fire control responsibilities within the Ministry lie with the field units. The POSKO at PHPA receives radio reports from all Provinces in Indonesia. These reports are summaries originating from the Forestry offices in the Districts and Sub Districts (Dinas) and describe fire locations, sizes, origins and current status. The reports focus mainly on Forestry jurisdictions including conservation areas, parks, forest concessions and industrial plantations. As such, the reports do not provide a full assessment of the fire conditions in the Provinces.

In contrast to Forestry, information generated by the BAPEDAL POSKO flows mainly in a top-down direction as described below. The BAPEDAL POSKO is located at the BAPEDAL Pollution Control Section in central Jakarta. A dedicated room has been equipped with telephones, faxes, modem lines, a projector and screen, and several computers equipped with image processing and geographical information system programs. During the 1997 fire period the POSKO operated on a 24-hour basis with five permanent staff and about 20 personnel seconded from other BAPEDAL Directorates. Assigned positions include duty managers, analysts, phone, fax and internet operators and support staff. Several individuals with GIS expertise also volunteered their time to strengthen the technical capabilities of the POSKO. The BAPEDAL POSKO operates permanently to respond to environmental problems and natural disasters.

Several command posts were established by the other government agency members of TKNPKHL and provided the BAPEDAL POSKO with continuous information. These were located at the Meteorology and Geophysical Agency (BMG), the Space and Aeronautics Agency (LAPAN), the Forestry Department and the National Coordination Centre for Disaster Control (BAKORNAS-PB).

The BAPEDAL POSKO receives several types of information daily including processed and unprocessed satellite images from NOAA satellites (via LAPAN and the Singapore Meteorological Service), weather reports (via BMG), smoke and haze reports (Department of Communications, Singapore and Malaysia Meteorological Services), and telephone and fax reports of conditions from regions where fires are occurring. The POSKO also receives detailed boundary maps of concessions for commercial forestry and industrial timber plantations, tree crop and other agricultural plantations, conservation areas, mining and oil and gas concessions, and transmigration projects. Daily POSKO operations include:

  • receiving and enhancing satellite images to show hot spot locations;
  • using GIS to overlay hot spots on concession maps to ascertain responsible parties;
  • contacting Provincial and District Government offices, and sectoral Departments to report hot spot locations for investigation and control;
  • receiving phone or faxed reports of fire outbreaks from public, media and government sources, then disseminating information to Provincial and District government offices;
  • providing reports to officials in BAPEDAL, the President’s office, other government agencies and the media.

The POSKO at BAPEDAL is in its early stages and is evolving in terms of its organization, function and application. As a result, the overall picture of the 1997 forest fires in Indonesia, particularly as it applies to number of fires and area being burned, is not available. Nevertheless, the recognition of large fires in remote and inaccessible regions (such as in Kalimantan) through the POSKO operations is useful.


Much has been said and written about the 1997 forest fire problem in Indonesia. The debate continues as to who or what is responsible. Perhaps the question of pertinence is: What has changed or what is different from previous significant fire years? Burning the landscape, whether for removal of refuse, or clearing land has been a way of life in Indonesia for millennia. It is usually the least expensive and in some cases the only effective means to remove vegetative matter. For many rural people fire is used to prepare their land for subsistence crops. For other people, the drought affords an opportunity to accomplish land clearing objectives when burning is not possible during a normal seasonal weather pattern.

Surface or shallow ground fires are normally extinguished with the arrival of the Northwest monsoons and wet season. Under the 1997-1998 extended drought, however, the fuels became drier with each passing day, resulting in higher intensity fires with faster spread rates. In the case of organic soils, the drought lowers the water table, which in turn results in more available fuel. This allows wildfire to penetrate deeper below the surface, making the peat fires increasingly difficult to extinguish. The deep burning fires produce large amounts of smoke and haze.

Much of the burning in 1997 occurred either in fallow land cleared for the growing season which normally starts in September, or in areas where forest was felled and burned for plantation development. Until late September, few tracts of standing forest were sufficiently dry to ignite and burn. The dry conditions, however, persisted long enough for standing forest to burn. In addition, the large areas of coastal peatlands in Sumatra and Kalimantan also became sufficiently dry to burn. By the end of September hot spots (associated with fire occurrence) appeared in areas known to contain logged-over forest and peat. The dilemma of fire management occurs at this point. While fire is an important tool for land management, the smoke produced during open burning then limits the rapid detection, access and suppression of the fires moving into forested areas (Fig.2).


Virtually all of the fires burning in lands and forests in Indonesia are caused by man and as such are manageable and preventable. The crisis experienced in 1997 was a result of traditional and commercially-based broadcast burning exacerbated by prolonged drought.

To date, fire preparedness planning and implementation in Indonesia has tended to be more reactive than proactive. Emphasis has been placed on activating fire control organizations, at various levels from the National Forest Fire Control Center (PUSDALKARHUTNAS) through the Provincial Center (PUSDALKARHUTDA), the Executor Units (SATLAK) to the Fire Brigades (SATGAS). Fire fighting forces are also activated in forest and industrial timber concessions. There is, however, little recognition of fire danger. Fire danger rating systems are effectively used in other fire-prone countries and have been tested in the ASEAN region. Preliminary work has been done within Indonesia. Nationally, the TKNPKHL has prepared fire hazard maps. On a local basis, some Provinces have implemented a simple system of days since last rain, but have yet to correlate meteorological data with actual fuel moisture within local fuel types.

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Fig.2. Conceptual diagram of the main factors affecting the control of land and forest fires in Indonesia. The rapid loss of visibility during the early stages of the fire period (grasslands and cleared forest) limits the ability to control fires during the later stages when fire moves into peatlands and standing forest where natural resource losses are high and benefits of open burning are diminished. In the diagram the boundary between controllable fires and wildfires is defined at a visibility distance of about 1500 m, below which aircraft, other transportation modes and aerial observations and monitoring are restricted.

The inability of forest fire agencies to quickly detect and take rapid and aggressive initial action on new fires, is the single most limiting factor in Indonesia’s fire management program. This is particularly true for fires that have limited vehicular access. Another primary constraint to effective control has been the imbalance between increasing fire risks due to the prolonged drought and the limited ability to raise the level of concern among public and private agencies affected. The low level of concern among institutions and the public has limited the effectiveness of any response.

Recommendations and Planned Activities

  • There must be a single national institution with line authority and field infrastructure responsible and accountable for ensuring a national response for all land and forest wildfires. A single line agency for fire management is a proven structure for effective fire agencies around the world. The TKNPKHL has recently drafted a reorganization of fire management responsibilities to a single agency. Promulgation and implementation of the new organization is expected in 1998.
  • Broadcast burning for land clearing purposes is necessary and will continue as an activity on the landscape in Indonesia. Alternatives to burning must be developed with technologies, incentives and sanctions to encourage safe burning or the use of alternative methods.
  • Appropriate laws, sanctions and enforcement mechanisms should be incorporated into an integrated national approach to land clearing and burning over the long term. Public awareness and local extension programs should be strengthened to encourage managed burning. Prevention should receive strong enforcement capability in the field. Initial efforts should be to establish legal precedence using existing fire and burning legislation. Several legal cases are pending.
  • A preparedness planning system needs to be established to facilitate proactive responses to fires. The system should have as basic components: fuels mapping and classification; fire danger rating system; fire index network and forecasting; fire prediction, fire detection and resource deployment. Several donor-assisted initiatives are underway to assist in developing these components.
  • Regional cooperation should be strengthened to enhance communication of fire information and to optimize the allocation of resources for fire management and control. National Fire Management Plans are currently being prepared by several ASEAN member countries. The plans will be used as the basis for developing an ASEAN Regional Fire Management Plan.
  • The data on the number of wildfires, hectares burned or burning, and forest and other values impacted are sectoral, fragmented and inaccurate, and require standardized mapping and surveying. An internationally-sponsored project is being planned to document and evaluate in detail the social, economic and environmental effects of the 1997 fires.

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Conversion of forest into villages, farms, pasture lands, and plantations involves clearcutting and burning – a traditional method applied all over the world (Photos: Fire Ecology Research Group). The impacts of land-use change, i.e. the loss of biodiversity and the smoke generated during the conversion process, is causing nowadays more public concerns as compared to decades ago. Indonesia does not stand alone. The Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE) released in early February 1998 the deforestation figures for 1995-1996. They show that in the mid-1990s deforestation, with annually 29,059 km2, doubled as compared to the end of 1980s.

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Many of the ecologically fragile forest sites in the tropics cannot provide conditions suitable for agricultural or plantation system. After clearcutting, burning and a few year of cropping the productivity of these sites degrades and farmers abandon the land. Aggressive invading grasses, such as the Imperata species, occupy the sites (Upper photo). They are highly flammable, burn almost every year, thus preventing the regeneration of secondary forest.

During the El Niño droughts primary and secondary forests become flammable. The lower photo shows a surface fire in a lowland rain forest in East Kalimantan, Indonesia (Photos: Fire Ecology Research Group).

From:  Nabiel Makarim, Yon Artiono Arba’i,
and Antung Deddy and Michael Brady
Indonesian Environmental
Impact Management Agency
Arthaloka Bldg. 6th Floor
Jl. Jendral Sudirman No. 2
Jakarta 10220,
Collaborative Environmental
Project in Indonesia
Arthaloka Bldg. 10th Floor
Jl. Jendral Sudirman No. 2
Jakarta 10220,

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