Neighboring nations ready to help RI tackle fires

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11 August 2009

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Indonesia — With forest fires expected to fan out in the next few months due to a severe dry spell, neighboring countries are offering their help in controlling the infernos, a minister says.

State Minister for the Environment Rachmat Witoelar said Monday he was scheduled to meet in Singapore with ministers from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei Darussalam to discuss the forest fires.

The steering committee for the meeting, to be held on Aug. 19, will also seek ways to prevent the repeated large-scale burning that blankets neighboring countries in haze.

“We have very good cooperation with neighboring nations in dealing with the fires,” Rachmat told The Jakarta Post.

“They’re committed to helping us tackle them.”

He did not detail what sort of assistance had been offered.

“The governments of Malaysia and Singapore have provided equipment to monitor air quality, including in Riau,” he said.

Indonesia is the largest forest nation in the region, with 120 million hectares of rainforest.

Rachmat warned Indonesia was very vulnerable to huge forest fires if the El Ni*o phenomenon hit the country this year.

Analysts say El Ni*o will cause massive forest fires, as it did in 2006, when fires ravaged more than 145,000 hectares of forest here.

The 2006 fire also affected millions of people in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and parts of Thailand, forcing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to apologize to the neighboring countries for the export of haze.

Those countries also deployed helicopters to put out the fires.

The Malaysian government said Monday it was ready to help Indonesia tackle forest fires, but only if Jakarta requested it.

Malaysia’s Housing and Local Government Minister Kong Cho Ha said the country would send experts to Indonesia, but added no request had been made so far.

Malaysia is experiencing thick haze as fires continue to rage across 5,300 hotspots in Indonesia, mostly in Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra and West Kalimantan.

Kong said the haze drifting from Indonesia had been a regular event since 1998, between July and September, due to the winds.

Malaysia is also grappling with several forest and plantation fires that have caused an unhealthy air pollution index (API) in the cities of Sibu, Miri and Kuching.

“In the weeks following the haze, firefighters put out forest fires in 2,000 of 2,560 hectares, with the worst affected being Miri,” Kong said as quoted by Antara.

Rachmat pledged to submit findings on forest fires in Riau to the police.

Thick haze from peatland fires has also blanketed Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan.

The Palangkaraya Health Office reported 1,882 people suffered from respiratory problems due to the haze in the first week of this month.

During El Ni*o of 1982-1983, fires razed 3.7 million hectares of forests in Kalimantan alone, worsened by commercial logging and agriculture.

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