Haze from forest fires disrupt flights out of Pekanbaru

A resident tries to put out a bushfire with a tree branch in Pekanbaru, Riau, on Sumatra island on Aug 23.
A resident tries to put out a bushfire with a tree branch in Pekanbaru, Riau, on Sumatra island on Aug 23. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - Flights out of Sultan Syarif Kasim II International Airport in Pekanbaru were disrupted due to the haze from forest fires that were started in Riau province over the past week.

Indonesia's meteorology, climatology and geophysics agency (BMKG) said on Sunday (Aug 28) that the "thick black smoke" from forest and bush fires caused visibility problems at the weekend.

"Thick and black clouds began to blanket Dumai and Pekanbaru, limiting visibility, especially in the morning," said Mr Slamet Riyadi, head of data and information department at the BMKG's Pekanbaru office.

He told Tempo news that visibility was limited to one kilometre in Dumai and about two kilometres in Pekanbaru, down from the usual five kilometres in the two cities on Sumatra island. This after the BMKG detected 44 hot spots in Riau on Sunday, higher than Saturday's figure of 30.

Although the low visibility disrupted flights out of Pekanbaru over the weekend, there were no major delays.

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Pekanbaru peaked at 275, an unhealthy level, at 7am local time on Monday (Aug 29), but it fell to 20 by 10 am.

In Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra, however, PSI levels suddenly peaked at 200 on Monday morning due to changes in the wind direction.

Hang Nadim International Airport in nearby Batam island, which suffered 1.5 billion rupiah in losses due to flight disruptions caused by the haze last year, is not expected to be hit by the smoke from Riau province and Kalimantan island, for now, said Mr Philips Mustamu, who heads the BMKG station in Batam.

"Observations of the wind direction in Riau Islands shows it is unlikely the haze will reach Batam," said Mr Philips.

Meanwhile, satellite data from the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space website indicated that there were 168 hotspots across Indonesia between Sunday and Monday morning.

The latest development comes after Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said on Sunday that Indonesia is "entering a crucial season of land and forest fires" and the government "is not sitting still and is working non-stop" to tackle the fires.

She added that tougher law enforcement against perpetrators behind the fires have kept the number of hot spots across the country low, from 8,247 between January and August last year to 2,356 hot spots over the same period this year.

Some 30 plantation companies have been sanctioned over fires which led to the worst transboundary haze crisis in 2015. The ministry has also initiated civil suits against 10 companies, all of which are still ongoing. tkchan@sph.com.sg