SpecialReport: Forest fires: Increasing and potentially disastrous

 SpecialReport: Forest fires: Increasing and potentially disastrous

31 August 2009

published by www.thejakartapost.com

Indonesia — Forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra, such as those breaking out in Jambi, Riau and South Sumatra, have now become perennial during dry seasons.

Some 145,000 hot spots were detected in 2006, making it the second worst season since 1997.

Suffocating haze from the blazes often sparks protests from neighboring countries, particularly Malaysia.

The fires tend to be blamed on plantation firms or farmers setting fire to forested areas to create farming lands, and human negligence, such as smokers inadvertently throwing away burning cigarette butts.

The drought this year is not as bad as in 2006, when the government had to dispatch B-200 fire-fighting planes from Russia to control peatland fires in Ogan Komering Ilir (OKI) regency, South Sumatra.

“If this cycle repeats itself every four years, then there is likely to be a massive fire in South Sumatra next year,” Achmad Taufik, an employee at the Forest and Peatland Fire Management Agency at the South Sumatra Forestry Office, told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

To overcome forest fires, the provincial forestry office has formed various teams, from the Manggala Agni firefighting unit, with 240 firefighters spread over four operational areas – OKI, Musi Banyuasin, Banyuasin and Lajat – to the Trained Village Community units consisting of 2,400 officers in 220 villages, including task forces from estate companies.

“Officers from the Trained Village Community units are the forerunners of the independent firefighters,” said Taufik.

The Trained Village Community units can be relied upon to overcome small-scale forest fires taking place in their villages, because they are equipped with the skills and standard equipment.

“But if a fire were to occur outside their area, they would probably not be able to fight it, although they would report it to the district command post.”

The provincial and relevant agencies in South Sumatra are never tired of providing guidance, advice, including sanctions ahead of the dry season, but forest fires still prevail.

Similarly in Jambi, rain in the past few days to a certain extent has doused a number of hots spots flaring over the past month. The province is currently free of forest and land fires.

Jambi Governor Zulkifli Nurdin said that forest and peatland fires in Jambi had continued unabated in his region in the past few years. As many as 6,692 hot spots were recorded in 2006, 2,782 in 2007 and 20,010 in 2008.

“Despite the decreasing number of hot spots from year to year, coordination in tackling fires is still weak,” he said.

Images from the NOAA satellite recorded 626 hot spots during August 2009, the highest number of which occurred on Aug. 4 with 232 hot spots, followed by Aug. 1 with 123 hot spots and Aug. 5 with 76 hot spots.

“The rain has saved us from forest and peat land fires,” said Jambi Forest and Peatland Fire Control Center (Pusdalkarlahut) secretary Frans Tandipau.

Despite the recent rainfall, hot spots may rekindle because forest fires can be sparked by irresponsible people.

The emergence of a hot spot is closely related to forest conversion for farmland, so much so that if the rain stops, hots pots will definitely re-emerge.

If a hot spot is equivalent to an area measuring a hectare, the affected areas in Jambi this year span 1,519 hectares. However, in reality, a hot spot spans between one and four hectares.

As many as 611 hot spots, or 40.22 percent of forest fires took place on residential properties, while the rest in plantation areas and forests.

Data collected on forest and peatland fires in Jambi shows that the number of fires increased in the early part of the dry season, from May, with 91 hot spots. The number of hot spots grew to 167 in June, and 668 in July.

“Forest and peatland fires will prevail in Jambi,” said the Jambi chapter head of the Natural Resources Conservation Center (BKSDA), Didy Wurjanto.

The drought is likely to last until November, so forest conversion by burning is likely to continue during the dry season.

He urged the community at large to watch the current forest and peat land fires, because rain was the most effective way to overcome the fire, without which forest fires would prevail unabated.

The limited number of Manggala Agni fire fighters in the province has been a setback because they cannot cover the entire affected areas.

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