First fire-prevention plan in Riau

Acting Riau Governor Arsyadjuliandi Rachman yesterday launched the province's first fire-prevention programme in collaboration with local government, police and a major pulp and paper company, in a bid to stem forest fires that cause haze.

The programme, initiated by pulp and paper firm April, involves nine villages on the periphery of its plantation in the town of Kerinci in Pelalawan regency where it operates its mill.

April's strategic fire manager Craig Tribolet said this involves identifying a representative from each village to be a fire crew leader with whom it will coordinate communication and training of villagers and arrange the lending of firefighting tools. April has also trained 70 policemen in basic firefighting.

"We need to move beyond putting out fires to preventing them, because when we put the wet stuff over the red stuff, it is often too late," Mr Tribolet said, referring to dousing of fires.

Mr Arsyadjuliandi, whose province was the epicentre of the worst haze in 16 years in 2013, says such collaboration was crucial to achieve the no-haze goal he pledged last year when he took office. He told The Straits Times on the sidelines of the event: "Frankly, we do not have the resources and we need big companies like April to help push through such programmes and lend us equipment and help with monitoring and training."

The programme reflects the higher level of collaboration happening in this province, with the police and military also roped in to battle the haze. Ironically, yesterday's event took place on a day that saw visibility in Riau drop to 1.5km in its provincial capital Pekanbaru, prompting officials to distribute masks to schoolchildren.

Pekanbaru's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency recorded 148 hot spots across five provinces in Sumatra yesterday - 55 in South Sumatra, 45 in Riau, 35 in Jambi, nine in Bangka Belitung and four in Lampung.

It also comes as Asean ministers met in Indonesia's capital Jakarta to affirm their commitment to battling transboundary haze.

Back in Kerinci town, Mr Tribolet, an Australian firefighter hired to design the fire-prevention programme, said he found most of the residents had no malicious intent in burning land. "They simply have no other alternatives, and it costs next to nothing to clear by burning," he said of the traditional practice.

The villages, within a 3km-radius outside the company's plantation, were selected based on how fire-prone and influential they are.

April conducted dialogues with the villagers and also tapped NGOs. "We need to build networks and relationships with them, and hope the remaining villages could follow," said Mr Tribolet.

Mr Amirul, 30, who goes by one name, owns 2ha of land in Sering village. He said the villagers accepted April's offer to lend them excavators to clear their land, even though it will take up to a month more than simply burning, because there is now a higher level of scrutiny among villagers who are encouraged to report fires.

For his part, Mr Arsyadjuliandi set up a 24-hour fire-prevention post in Pekanbaru to monitor fire updates twice daily and assign officials to fire-prone areas.

Despite such efforts, fires are still common. Along the stretch of road in Kerinci, a large swathe of land was seen smoking, freshly burnt three days ago, residents said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2015, with the headline 'First fire-prevention plan in Riau'. Print Edition | Subscribe