Fire razes protected forest in N. Sumatra

Fire razes protected forest in N. Sumatra

21 July 2011

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Indonesia — Fire has destroyed hundreds of hectares of protected forest over the last three days on the slopes of Mount Sipiso-Piso, located near the Lake Toba resort area in Tongging village, Merek district, Karo regency, North Sumatra.

As of noon Wednesday, there was no sign of the fire abating. The fire is believed to be sparked by people intending to clear the forest. A limited number of fire trucks and rough terrain hampered firefighting efforts.

Strong winds contributed to the quick spread of fire, which has spread to nearby residents’ farms.

Local resident Sinar Munte said the forest fire began on Tuesday. He said many residents feared the massive fire could threaten their farms.

“We are afraid the fire will quickly spread to our farms. There is no sign the fire will recede as of now,” said Sinar, adding residents living around the area did not have the resources to help douse the fire.

Sinar added residents believed it was sparked by particular parties who wished to clear land for plantation.

Sinar said forest fires were an annual occurrence in the mountainous area, especially during the dry season.

“Forest fires take place almost every year but the government seems incapable of overcoming the problem,” he added.

Head of the Karo Firefighting Unit, Suang Karo-Karo, said that his unit had dispatched several fire trucks to the fire site, and acknowledged that his men were facing difficulties extinguishing the flames.

“The fire is out of control, while we only have equipment that can douse the outskirts of the fire,” said Suang.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) North Sumatra chapter executive director Syahrul Isman alleged that the fire was intentionally sparked by certain parties to make way for new plantation.

“Such a mode of operation is common because it is cheap and quick. Forest destruction from fires is detrimental to the sustainability of flora and fauna,” Syahrul said.

He added that Walhi was puzzled that the government had turned a blind eye to the recurrent fires on Mt. Sipiso-Piso. He said the current forest fire reminded him of a fire in the same location two years ago that damaged 300 hectares of protected forest.

“The government should take a firm stance and have the courage to address forest fires on and around Mt. Sipiso-Piso, failing which the protected forests will deplete in the not-too-distant future,” said Syahrul.

Hotspots detected in the country’s land and forest area have grown in number over the last few days as people and forest companies began land clearing amid the absence of law enforcement, activists warn.

WWF Indonesia recorded hotspots hit the highest number ever with more than 1,519 as of July 15, 2011, mostly in the provinces of Riau, North Sumatra, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan.

“It is likely that smoke from land and forest fires in Indonesia will hit Malaysia and Singapore. It is only a matter of time unless the government takes serious action now,” Hariri Dedi, head of forest fire management at WWF, said late last week.

WWF detected some 1,960 hotspots in the whole month of June, from 1,113 the previous month.

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