Malaysia — Veteran firefighter Zulkefli Othman is facing some of the toughest challenges of his 36-year career, fighting persistent peat fires in rural Selangor amid unusually hot and dry weather.
Zulkefli has spent 15 days straight fighting fires in remote Johan Setia, Selangor. Elsewhere around Malaysia, taps are running dry as tinderbox weather persists.
“Without enough rain in another week, I guarantee you water sources will dry up. Then we’re really in trouble,” he told The Straits Times, gesturing wearily to the pockets of peat fires still igniting hundreds of hectares of burnt out farmland, releasing billowing smoke into the air.
Since Feb 1, the national fire authorities have recorded 6,098 fire outbreaks nationwide, with Selangor experiencing the most outbreaks at 1,282, followed by Johor at 1,015 and Perak at 1,001.
Malaysia is experiencing one of its driest stretches in years, with 14 times more open burning this year than the same time last year.
“It’s a strange phenomenon. The dry weather is very early this year,” said Soiman Jahid, chief of Malaysia’s Fire and Rescue Services Department firefighting operations in an interview.
He agrees with meteorological department analyses that the current monsoon is experiencing a break in which moisture is “vacuumed” out of the air causing the very dry weather. This is expected to last until the middle of next month.
The problem is made worse by farmers and plantation workers who intentionally light fires to clear land cheaply, causing firemen like Zulkefli to toil day and night nationwide to put them out.
Malaysia prohibits open burning and offenders face a 500,000 ringgit (US$151,194) fine or a jail term of not more than five years. But the law is widely flouted with convictions unheard of.
“It is a very difficult thing to prove that someone is guilty of open burning, especially if companies or land owners hire part-timers,” said Murugiah Muthusamy, who is in charge of hazardous materials for the Malaysian fire department. “It’s also hard to send enforcement teams out to check everywhere unless there are complaints, which are rare.”
Until there is more stringent enforcement, there will be no rest for the 12 or so firefighters under Zulkefli. They work round the clock in rural Johan Setia, more than an hour from Kuala Lumpur, to fight fires, all without ample water sources nearby.
Just three minutes of non-stop spraying will empty an entire 1,800-litre fire truck. It is up to the firefighters working a minimum of 12 hours daily to find alternative water sources, which are quickly disappearing in the sweltering heat.
Unlike conventional bushfires that burn themselves out quickly, peat fires burn underground and are more difficult to extinguish, and need large amounts of water to put out.
“Organic matter like trees and dead things piles up underground and gives lasting fuel to fire. So we have to flood the ground underneath,” said Hissam Sidik, who oversees Selangor firefighting operations.
Firefighters are working around the clock. Mohd Fuad Wan Ali, a firefighter, says he sometimes eats nothing but curry puffs and coffee all day.
“It’s not fire we want to reduce but the smoke which is still dangerous. Smoke tends to signal to people that we are not doing our job but they don’t understand the difficulties we face,” he said.