Malaysia — Open burning has always been the main cause of forest fires but irresponsible acts by certain people have worsened the situation.
Compounded by the present heatwave, the flora and fauna have withered and peat swamps have dried up, making them sitting ducks.
Since last month, hundreds of firefighters risked their lives to put out the fires which had destroyed large tracts of forests, particularly the dried-up peat swamps.
This week, 65 firefighters battled the flames and smoldering embers at three areas between Kuantan and Pekan, while others worked around-the-clock dousing bushfires at dozens of locations.
Fires had razed an 18ha forest near LKPP plantation in Penor, a 20ha area near Sekolah Bestari Sri Pekan, and 3ha of the Ramin forest reserve.
“We are relieved that most of the fires have been put out but the worst has yet to come. We have to be on alert at all times during this dry spell,” said Pahang Fire and Rescue Department operations centre chief Superintendent Amran Jusoh.
Peat forms when organic material in marshy areas is inhibited from decaying. Due to its high carbon content, the smoldering peat fires can sometimes burn for a very long period as they creep through the underground peat layer.
Although peat swamps in the peninsula have dwindled from 809,000ha in 1957 to 160,000ha in the last couple of years, Pahang still has about 90,000ha of them, considered as the largest in mainland tropical Asia.
If the weather does not let up and no rain in the next few weeks, more peat swamps will dry up, turning them into major fire hazards.
This is a challenge to the Fire and Rescue Department as every year, some of these areas will be affected by fire, particularly during the dry period.
Based on the department’s statistics, there were 440 forest fires reported in 2007; 2008 (373) and 2009 (473). Half of the total cases in the state were forest or bushfires.
Amran said uncontrolled open burning in plantations had caused most of the fires.
“Although open burning is allowed within a certain period, the lack of supervision and precautionary measures cause the fire to spread.”
He said campers and anglers also carried the blame when they forget to put out the campfire and cigarette butts when leaving the forest.
The most difficult task for the firefighters was when the fires occur in remote or inaccessible areas.
In such cases, they either trek to the affected areas on foot or ride in four-wheel-drive vehicles with their portable water pumps.
“We also use helicopters like in 2007 when a fire razed hundreds of hectares of peat swamps in Penor.”
Amran said some 800 firefighters in the state were on standby now and could be mobilised on short notice.
“If the need arises, we’ll call for reinforcement from other states.”