Riau schools close as police arrest 12 over Sumatra forest fires

Riau schools close as police arrest 12 over Sumatra forest fires

19 February 2014

published by www.thejakartaglobe.com

Indonesia — Police in Riau have arrested 12 people in connection with forest fires that have contributed to hazardous air quality in the Sumatra province, as schools were told to close and residents in the worst-affected subdistricts were advised to stay indoors.

“[The 12 farmers] have been detained and will go through questioning by detectives in district police offices,” Riau Police spokesman Adj. Sr. Cmr. Guntru Aryo Tejo told the state-run Antara News Agency on Tuesday.

Four district police offices — Bengkalis, Indragiri Hilir, Pekanbaru and Rokan Hilir — were conducting investigations. The suspects, all farmers, were each suspected of burning up to five hectares of forest. None owned the land they stood accused of burning, police said.

The arrest of 12 people for five hectares’ worth of fires only plays at the margins of the problem. Haze in Riau is responsible for a proportion of Indonesia’s vast carbon emissions and leads to misery for the local population. The fires are also responsible for a near-annual diplomatic locking of horns with Singapore as the haze drifts over the Strait of Malacca and disrupts business as usual in the Lion City.

A total of 5,875 hectares of land were on fire on Wednesday, and, according to the Pekanbaru office of the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG ), 256 hotspots have been detected by Nasa’s Terra and Aqua satellites, mostly in the Bengkalis and Teluk Meranti sub-districts.

Pekanbaru BMKG spokesman Slamet Riyadi said on Wednesday that the fires could burn for some time as the short-term weather forecast had only light rain in store for the area.

Some flights have been canceled or delayed due to haze around Sultan Syarif Kasim II International Airport in Pekanbaru. On Wednesday, Silk Air flights out of Singapore and Sky Aviation flights from Malaka were delayed amid reports that visibility was down to 800 meters.

Domestic airlines including Garuda Indonesia and Lion Air also experienced delays and cancellations.

Some 15,292 residents have fallen ill because of the haze, Riau Health Agency official Erdinal said, according to the Indonesian news portal Metrotvnews.com.

“Mostly they suffer upper-respiratory tract infections because of the declining air quality,” Erdinal said, adding that air was still at a “hazardous level,” with pollution index readings above 250.

Common symptoms within this range included asthma as well as eye and skin irritations — a heightened risk of pneumonia was also a concern, she said.

Readings above 50 exceed the healthy level.

Erdinal suggested that locals wear masks and avoid outdoor activities — which would preclude the majority of the population from working.

The Pekanbaru Education Agency has suspended all school until Feb. 20, saying that the air quality was hazardous for children.

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