Haze could return to Singapore, Malaysia after huge jump in forest fires in Riau

Workers leaving a plantation hit by fire in Dumai, Riau province. Indonesia's disaster agency warned on Wednesday that haze could return to neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia after a huge jump in forest fires in a province at the centre of a sm
Workers leaving a plantation hit by fire in Dumai, Riau province. Indonesia's disaster agency warned on Wednesday that haze could return to neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia after a huge jump in forest fires in a province at the centre of a smog crisis last year. -- PHOTO: AL GHIFARI ALEXANDRIA RAMADHAN

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia's disaster agency warned on Wednesday that haze could return to neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia after a huge jump in forest fires in a province at the centre of a smog crisis last year.

Fires in Riau province, on western Sumatra island, caused the worst outbreak of haze in South-east Asia for more than a decade in June last year, affecting daily life for millions and sparking a heated diplomatic row.

June is the start of the forest fire season - when slash-and-burn techniques are used to clear land quickly and cheaply, often for palm oil plantations - and disaster officials said the number of blazes in Riau was rising quickly.

A total of 366 "hotspots" - either forest fires or areas likely to soon go up in flames - had been detected in the province on Wednesday, up from 97 the previous day, according to disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

"We must be on alert as the wind is travelling east-northeast. The likelihood of the smog reaching Singapore and Malaysia is getting higher," he said. Experts have said that an expected El Nino weather phenomenon later this year is likely to fan the forest fires as conditions become drier than usual. El Nino drags precipitation across the Pacific Ocean, leaving countries including Indonesia drier and parts of the Americas wetter.

However, the latest outbreak of forest fires has yet to have any serious impact on daily life in Sumatra, and the skies over Singapore were still free of haze. Authorities said that most of the forest fires last year were deliberately lit to clear land.

Slash-and-burn is a traditional farming technique, but environmental groups also accuse big companies of using the method. According to the Washington-based World Resources Institute, a large number of the fires detected recently have been within the concessions of paper and palm oil companies and their suppliers.

It found 75 hotspots in the concessions of suppliers to Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) between June 17 and June 23, and 43 hotspots in zones of suppliers to Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) in the same period, using data from satellite mapping tools.

APRIL said it had agreed to support the fire-fighting effort, lending its water pumps and a company helicopter. APP did not immediately comment.