Malaysia — Unscrupulous people, especially illegal farmers, squatters and plantation owners, are blatantly defying the state governments ban on open burning that was imposed last week.
They are deliberately setting off wildfires to clear land and burn bulky agricultural waste, challenging the efforts of state leaders to prevent a recurrence of the haze.
Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan announced the ban on all forms of open burning last week but there are many who are openly defying it.
The situation here is serious with wildfires over the past week resulting in smoke and ash being blown far and wide, causing serious health concerns for the people.
These hotspots, aside from causing a surge in the temperature, are also worsening the impact of the drought caused by the ongoing El Nino weather phenomenon.
The Star carried out ground checks over a 35km stretch from Miri city to the transboundary bridge that connects to the Sungai Tujuh immigration and customs checkpoint, and found huge plots of land ravaged by fires.
Miri Fire and Rescue Department chief Christian Olas said that an average of six big fires were reported daily in the area over the past week.
Most of the fires are at Tudan (a resettlement scheme where more than 30,000 former squatters are relocated to) and parts of the inland plantations surrounding the area.
There are no access roads, so our firefighters have a lot of problems reaching the fires.
The smog and ash from these fires are being blown all over Kuala Baram and into the Miri City centre, Olas said.
He added that his department was facing two major problems in trying to put out the fires lack of manpower and underground peat fires.
We can only deploy seven firefighters at any one time to a site. If there are several fires burning at a time, we will face severe manpower constraints.
Every time we put out one fire at a site, another one flares up as someone else sets fires to those areas.
And if these fires are in peat swamps, even those fires that burn on the ground surface can move underground and continue to burn. It is futile to just douse these peat fires from the surface, he said, explaining the extent of the problem that peat fires could cause.
Olas said his department could not deploy all its firefighters to deal with the wildfires, because there must be personnel on standby at the fire stations at all times to respond to other emergencies.
At the height of the fires, ash was blown into homes, shops and offices, making breathing difficult.
The also reduced visibility and driving has become hazardous on some parts of the highway leading to the Sarawak-Brunei border.
Some of the fires are burning just next to the highway.