JAKARTA — A thick haze hangs over Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia that has lasted since early August. Again this year, hundreds of small fires set by local farmers clearing their lands have set fires that burn deep into the underlying peat layer. The fires will smolder for weeks or months, spreading smoke across the region.
First devastated by last December’s tsunami, the Indonesian island of Sumatra is now the center of the current smoke and haze pollution. While the tsunami affected the large island’s northwest coast, the fires are burning in the east.
A helicopter survey today by the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) around the Simpang Kubu River, near the port city of Dumai, Sumatra’s major east coast port, revealed hundreds of small fires burning in this area of Riau province.
At the moment the contribution to the smoke by large-scale “industrial” land-clearing in this area is not clear, but it occurred in neighboring areas earlier this year, the GFMC reports. “Hundreds of individual fires that are burning in the area currently and the new ones that continue to be lit by locals are difficult if not impossible tocontrol.”
The GFMC report indicates that no forest is burning, but the fires occur in grasslands resulting from previous land-clearings, scrub land, woody slash from secondary forest re-growth, and some young palm oil plantations.
Indonesia has deployed a team of investigators to verify the hotspots and collect evidence for law enforcement purposes.
Malaysia last week asked Indonesia to suppress the fires that have blanketed Southeast Asia with heavy air pollution including the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
Forestry Minister M.S. Kaban said here Monday that eight out of the 10 companies alleged to have caused the fires are Malaysian, the official Antara news agency reports.
The managements of the 10 companies are currently being questioned by the Environment Ministry, Kaban said.
The minister briefed reporters after a meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Transportation Minister Hatta Radjasa about the haze.
All available firefighters in Riau Province have been mobilized to control the fires, and their efforts have been assisted by heavy rain over the past 48 hours that has helped put out some of the fires.
Firefighting teams would be able to control only surface fires on some plantations and agricultural lands, the GFMC said. Extinguishing of deep-burning peat fires would require special equipment and sufficient time to isolate or flood burning peat layers.
According to the GFMC, deep burning of peat layers in regions such as in Riau Province may result in inundation of low-lying coastal regions by seawater, jeoparizing valuable and biodiverse lands.
“The prevention of fires in these sensitive ecosystems, the observation of the national fire ban and its enforcement therefore should have highest priority,” said theGFMC.
Forestry Minister Kaban said today the government will make artificial rain starting on August 22 and buy aircraft capable of carrying water to extinguish the fires that often occur in Indonesia.
At an August 11 meeting in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia agreed to accept Malaysia’s offer of cloud seeding over Sumatra and technical assistance on the use of non-burning techniques for land clearing.
Several locations in mainland Malaysia declared air quality emergencies, as smoke from the Indonesian fires drifted across the Strait of Malacca and blanketed the country with haze. Many regions closed schools and businesses, and news reports indicated this may the worst air quality event the country has experienced since the fire season during the 1997-98 El Niño.
In Malaysia, the Klang Valley, which holds Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital Putrajaya, and Port Klang has been overcast with haze, but the situation improved somewhat today.
Late Monday, the winds reversed and are currently blowing towards the northwest instead of northeast as they have over the past several days. The current haze event is no worse than on previous occasions, says the GFMC. The difference has been that the wind direction has brought most of the smoke to Kuala Lumpur.
The wind has now shifted northwards and Penang is affected.
The air quality emergencies declared in various locations of Malaysia last week have now been lifted due to the changed wind direction and increased rainfall. The smoky haze is now moving northwards to the northern parts of Peninsular Malaysia, Penang, Butterworth and Kota Bahru.
In Thailand on Monday hazy atmospheric conditions over the resort island of Phuket are caused by the Sumatra fires, said Chumnong Chitpukdee, chief of the Meteorological Departments southern center. A local hospital is distributing free face masks to people with weak respiratory systems.
Other southern areas of Thailand including Satun, Phatthalung, and Pattani are also smoky. The Thai Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department has warned provincial authorities in Trang, Satun, Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat to adopt smoke mitigation measures.
The agency is urging people with asthma and allergies to stay indoors and distributing to residents 10,000 face masks sent by the Department of Health.
While the government of Indonesia has not asked for international help, neighboring countries have offered assistance.
Malaysia has dispatched 100 firemen to Pekan Baru, Riau equipped with transport, fire fighting equipment and personal protective gear. The team is expected tostay for up to two weeks.
At a special meeting of senior officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, Singapore and Thailand also indicated their readiness to help Indonesia.
Australia is sending a team of up to 12 bushfire experts to Sumatra to help deal with the fires.