Indonesia / Malaysia — Following a prolonged rainy season, Indonesia is currently experiencing a very dry period that has again triggered forest and plantation fires in Riau Province.
The fires, set to clear land for farming and plantation areas, have produced haze that enveloped several cities in the province, particularly in Pekanbaru and Palawawan District.
The Terra and Aqua satellite detected 297 hotspots from forest fires throughout the Riau Province, according to the Pekanbaru meteorological, climatology, and geophysics station (BMKG).
“In Sumatra, the highest number of hotspots is still in Riau, with 297 of them, a significant increase from the 37 hotspots seen the previous day,” Tri Puryanti, an analyst with the Pekanbaru BMKG, said on August 27, 2013.
Just in Pelalawan District more than 100 hotspots have been sited, and others were found in the Indragiri Hulu District, Indragiri Hilir, and Kampar, Puryanti noted.
Meanwhile, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), quoting NOAA 18 Satellite data, announced that 264 hotspots were observed in Riau`s 10 districts and cities early this week.
Officials reported that Pelalawan District has 76 hotspots, while Indragiri Hulu has 42; Rokan Hilir, 34; Indragiri Hilir, 29; Kampar, 26; Bengkalis, 20; Siak, 11; Rokan Hulu, 8; and Dumai City, 4.
BNPB pointed out that other provinces on Sumatra Island also have hotspots. The NOAA 18 satellite has detected 100 hotspots in West Sumatra, while Jambi has 57; South Sumatra has 31; Bengkulu, 15; and North Sumatra, 12.
The fastest and cheapest way to clear new land for planting crops is by burning; however, this practice has been banned by the government.
As usual, thick haze coming from land-clearance fires often degrade air quality, trigger certain diseases, and reduces visibility in affected areas, resulting in, among other things, temporary closures of some schools and delays in flight schedules.
Earlier, only one state Islamic Junior High School (MTsN) in Pekanbaru was forced to send home its students on August 27 as a result of the haze covering the city from forest and plantation fires.
“We decided to send the students home because the conditions created by the haze were quite worrying,” Sofyan, a teacher at MTsN Andalan, said.
Initially, the students had come for classes in the morning, but as the day progressed the smoke entered the classrooms and most students complained of eye irritation and respiratory problems, he stated.
After receiving permission from the city`s religious affairs office, the school discontinued teaching and sent the approximately 600 students home.
Two days later, on Aug 29, the Pekanbaru education office temporarily closed kindergartens and elementary schools in parts of the city.
Kindergarten, first, second and third grade students are prone to haze-induced respiratory problems and, therefore, they were excused from going to school, said Head of the Pekanbaru Education Office Zulfadil on Thursday.
But students from the fourth to 12th grades still have to attend school, despite the haze problem, he added.
Further, the Riau provincial health office has warned that the air condition in Pekanbaru, the province`s capital, is categorised as dangerous.
Dewani, the head of the Riau health office, said the pollution standard index in the city hit 320 PSI on August 28, but later decreased to 100 PSI.
The office, therefore, recommended the closures of schools for kindergarten through third grade students.
The haze also reduced visibility in Pekanbaru to about 500 meters on August 27, forcing the re-routing of three airplanes traveling from Jakarta to Pekanbaru.
The three planes – belonging to Garuda Indonesia, Air Asia, and Lion Air – eventually landed at Kuala Namu International Airport, Medan, North Sumatra province.
“Almost all scheduled departures are also delayed due to the haze,” said the Pekanbaru airport`s Duty Manager Bauquni.
The authorities, under the coordination of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, have been working to prevent the fires from spreading to wider areas.
Also, the Indonesian Air Force has deployed several Hawk 100/200 fighter planes to monitor bush fires in Riau.
“Not only helicopters (have been sent), but some Hawk fighter planes have been used to monitor fires in Riau. We are monitoring the situation while conducting flying exercises,” Roesmin Nurjadin Air Force Base spokesman Major Pilfadri told Antara.
Additionally, the air force has fielded three helicopters, one Cicorski and two Bolcos, to conduct water-bombing operations.
“A Cassa plane that conducts weather-modification operations has also been deployed,” he added.
BNPB spokesman Agus Wibowo explained that he had also coordinated with several companies for assistance in fighting the fires.
“Two companies that have pledged their cooperation are PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper and Sinarmas Group,” he said.
He noted that the two plantation and forestry companies had contributed two helicopters to monitor fires and conduct fire fighting operations.
“During a fire several months ago, these two companies had actively assisted BNPB,” he said.
He claimed BNPB does not yet know how much land has been burned due to the actions of those who set fires.
“What is certain is that the fires are mostly located in lands belonging to plantation or forestry companies,” he remarked.
Officials noted that the fires have led to an increase in air pollution in the region.
Head of the local BNPB office Said Saqlul Amri said cloud seeding would continue to produce rain, adding that the Agency of Technology Assessment and Application had added a minimum of two tons of salt to the operation every day.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for BNPB in Jakarta, said on August 27 that the NOAA 18 Satellite detected 488 hotspots throughout
Sumatra Island, including 88 hotspots in Jambi Province and 67 in South Sumatra.
The hotspots were located in peat land areas and produce thick smog.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said that in Riau Province 76 hotspots have been detected in Pelalawan District, 42 in Indragiri Hulu District, 34 in Roran Hilir, 29 in Rokan Hilir, 26 in Kampar, 26 in Bengkalis, 14 in Kuantan Sengingi, 11 in Siak, eight in Rokan Hulu, and four in Dumai.
He predicted that October would see a peak in forest and plantation fires in Sumatra. He said 99 percent of the fires are man-made for land clearance. Therefore, law enforcement is necessary to prevent land-clearance fires.
He believes the haze would not affect either Malaysia nor Singapore, as the wind direction is blowing in a northwest direction.
However, Warih Budi Lestari, an analyst with the Pekanbaru meteorological, climatology and geophysics station, disagreed.
He said haze might affect Malaysia, with winds blowing toward the neighboring country. “Based on our analysis, the wind in Riau is blowing from Southeast to Southwest at a maximum speed of 30 km per hour. Its direction is heading towards Malacca Strait,” he said on August 27.
If the wind direction does not change, haze problems might return to Malaysia, as happened several months ago, he added.
In June 2013, Malaysia declared a state of emergency in some areas after air pollution from the illegal burning of forests and peat lands in Indonesia reached hazardous levels.
However, the number of fire hotspots has been significantly reduced, said Indonesian Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan in Banjarnegara, West Java, on August 31.
“It`s now not much, it`s only around 20,” the minister stated.
The forestry minister and BNPB, however, are maintaining a vigilant watch over the fires, as the drought is predicted to last until October 2013.