Haze: Indonesia needs more firefighting aircraft

Fires raging in a forest in Ogan Komering Ilir Regency, in South Sumatra province, yesterday. New hot spots have emerged in Papua and Sulawesi, which were not known to be fire-prone until now.
Fires raging in a forest in Ogan Komering Ilir Regency, in South Sumatra province, yesterday. New hot spots have emerged in Papua and Sulawesi, which were not known to be fire-prone until now.PHOTO: REUTERS
(From left) Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar; Mr Sapto Nurlistyo, forestry operations director of Bumi Andalas Permai, a Sinar Mas unit; Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan; South Sumat
(From left) Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar; Mr Sapto Nurlistyo, forestry operations director of Bumi Andalas Permai, a Sinar Mas unit; Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan; South Sumatra governor Alex Noerdin; armed forces commander Gatot Nurmantyo and national police chief Badrodin Haiti on an aerial inspection from a helicopter in South Sumatra yesterday.ST PHOTO: WAHYUDI SOERIAATMADJA

Indonesia will need at least 15 more bigger water-bombing aircraft to fight forest and peatland fires in South Sumatra and Central Kalimantan and new ones that have flared up in Papua and Sulawesi.

The Mozes Kilangin airport in Timika, Papua, was forced to close indefinitely yesterday owing to the thick haze.

"Fifteen additional aircraft would bring about a significant impact before the rain finally comes," Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said after he surveyed the situation in South Sumatra aboard a helicopter yesterday.

There are currently 26 aircraft, including foreign ones, which Mr Luhut said are not enough.

These aircraft have focused mostly on putting out the fires in South Sumatra, which has been blanketed by choking haze for more than three months.

Another four aircraft are for cloud-seeding operations to induce rain, although the clouds have mostly not been suitable.

Some experts reckon the current fires in Indonesia, which produce the thick haze that has spread across South-east Asia, are unlikely to be put out in the next month or two.

A multinational effort involving countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Australia is under way to help put out the fires, but new hot spots have emerged in Papua and Sulawesi, which were not known to be fire-prone until now.

"The fires are massive, the weather is severely dry and the winds are strong. Water-bombing operations in the past week have only managed to mitigate but not stop the fires," said Mr Luhut.

"We have to launch bigger operations," added the minister, whose helicopter ride had to be cut short because of the haze.

The aircraft Mr Luhut has in mind include five Air Tractor planes - three for South Sumatra and two for Central Kalimantan - and also five Beriev and five Bombardier aircraft.

Two Russian-made Beriev Be-200 water bombers, which can carry up to 12,000 litres of water each, are expected to arrive in South Sumatra early this morning, while an Australian and a Malaysian aircraft returned home on Monday.

Mr Luhut was accompanied on the trip by the armed forces commander, General Gatot Nurmantyo, national police chief Badrodin Haiti, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar and South Sumatra governor Alex Noerdin.

During the aerial inspection, General Badrodin spotted fires near a river in a concession that he said came under a Sinar Mas company. Sinar Mas is the parent of Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper.

"There are fires in a Sinar Mas concession that are close to sources of water. Why can't they put out the fires? We are talking about thousands of litres of water near the location of fires. They should not rely too heavily on us," Gen Badrodin told a debriefing meeting.

Agreeing, Mr Luhut added: "Don't make us work for the companies as if we are their employees."

Meanwhile, the association of Indonesian pulpwood plantation companies (APHI) has objected to Singapore's move to investigate its members, locally known as HTI companies, local media reported.

HTI companies investigated by Singapore's National Environment Agency are legal entities in Indonesia, so they fall under Indonesia's legal jurisdiction, APHI deputy chairman Irsyal Yasman was quoted as saying.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2015, with the headline 'Indonesia needs more firefighting aircraft'. Print Edition | Subscribe