Frustrated civilians step up to fight fires

Volunteers extinguishing a peatland fire on Tuesday on the outskirts of Palangkaraya, central Kalimantan, where respiratory illnesses have soared in recent weeks.
Volunteers extinguishing a peatland fire on Tuesday on the outskirts of Palangkaraya, central Kalimantan, where respiratory illnesses have soared in recent weeks.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PALANGKARAYA (Indonesia) • Desperate civilians at the epicentre of Indonesia's haze crisis are taking the fight into their own hands, using whatever meagre resources they have to confront the fires ravaging their communities as they tire of waiting for the government to take action.

Wearing an oversized T-shirt and ill-fitting rubber boots, 13-year-old Yosua Oktavianus helped his father in dousing a fire burning outside their hometown in Borneo as acrid smoke belched from the scorched earth.

"I just want to help my dad," he said near Palangkaraya, a city of 240,000 where respiratory illnesses have soared as the haze worsened in recent weeks.

Communities worst exposed to the toxic haze are becoming increasingly frustrated at the authorities in Jakarta, insisting not enough is being done to ease their plight.

The government has launched water-bombing raids, dumping water over blazes on Borneo and neighbouring Sumatra, but has failed so far to bring thousands of fires under control.

It has also sent warships to Kalimantan - Indonesia's half of Borneo island - in case large-scale evacuations are needed, but many on the ground are choosing to fight, not flee, using wooden sticks, pails of water and anything else on hand to douse the flames.

After watching children and the elderly in his hometown fall sick under the pall of the haze - just some of the estimated half a million people who have suffered respiratory illnesses since the fires started in July - Mr Fery Auyadi, 20, decided enough was enough.

Banding together with his friends, the college students pooled their resources and collected donations for supplies before heading to the fire front. "My friends and I were fed up of waiting for the government to act," he said, dripping in sweat and mud as he battled a blaze outside Palangkaraya, adding: "It is now everybody's fight."

Another team in the area responded to reports of new fires and set off in pickup trucks, passing through a ruined, smoking landscape of charred earth and smouldering tree stumps.

The team scrambled to find water, a scarce resource on these tinder-dry peatlands, until a well was found at a nearby construction site.

As the team assembled the water pump, Mr Sayban, who goes by one name and was wearing neither a firefighter suit nor a proper mask, stomped the smoking ground.

"At least my boots are heat-resistant," said the civilian, who has stepped up to fight the fires.

Just as the 10-strong team arrived, reports of another blaze breaking out nearby came in.

Working around the clock on a tight budget, and with limited equipment at hand, they know if the fires become too big, they can do nothing but stand nearby and watch them burn.

In Palangkaraya, where many have fled since the smoke blanketing their town turned an eerie yellow, angry residents blame both major corporations and local farmers for the disaster, and want justice served, although the local authorities are reluctant to point fingers.

"If you want to stop this disaster from happening again, you need to put the culprits in jail for a long time, revoke their licence and confiscate their lands," a local resident named Andi told AFP.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2015, with the headline 'Frustrated civilians step up to fight fires'. Print Edition | Subscribe