Early efforts to prevent forest fires in Riau paying off

Smoke billowing from a fire in Muara Fajar village near Pekanbaru last Thursday. Around 1,000 firefighters have been deployed to put out fires in affected areas since a high-alert status was declared last week. Three helicopters have also been tasked
Smoke billowing from a fire in Muara Fajar village near Pekanbaru last Thursday. Around 1,000 firefighters have been deployed to put out fires in affected areas since a high-alert status was declared last week. Three helicopters have also been tasked to monitor the blazes.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Early action to prevent forest fires and the swift mobilisation of national resources, such as the military and police, to tackle hot spots have helped Indonesia's Riau province avoid a crisis, Acting Governor Arsyadjuliandi Rachman has said.

Around 1,000 firefighters have been deployed to put out fires in the affected areas since a high-alert status was declared in the province early last week.

Three helicopters from private firms have also been tasked to help monitor the blazes.

"Whenever a forest fire is detected, a team is immediately sent there. We don't want to wait any more," Mr Arsyadjuliandi told reporters yesterday, in response to queries from The Straits Times.

"We don't want the fires to spread like last year," he said, adding that whether they would do so or not "depends on how we handle the current situation".

"Coordination and additional manpower involve various parties. If we don't act fast, and with strong winds, the fires will (spread)," he said.

His quick decision to tap on the government's resources has helped to cut the number of hot spots in Riau from 45 on Sunday to only 12 yesterday.

The total number of hot spots across the country has also dramatically fallen, from 151 on Sunday to only 36 yesterday, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.

These are early signs, Mr Arsyadjuliandi said, that ongoing canal blocks to hold water in the peatlands and land-rewetting initiatives by the government to prevent a regional haze crisis are paying off.

While law enforcement remains a challenge as "stubborn" farmers continue to clear land using the cheap but illegal slash-and-burn method, the police have this year managed to round up 40 individuals in Riau for questioning, he said.

"Their cases are still being processed by the police. We are all making efforts," he said.

With the dry season already starting in Riau and North Sumatra, the authorities in Indonesia are keeping a close watch on the wildfires.

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan yesterday instructed related agencies to carry out preventive measures and achieve the government's target to restore 2 million to 2.5 million ha of dried-out peatland to natural conditions in five years.

"(Or else) the government will be in trouble. We will be criticised by foreign countries, but to me, those criticisms are Number 2. An important concern for me is that our people are suffering," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Early efforts to prevent forest fires in Riau paying off'. Print Edition | Subscribe