More copters to fight Sumatra fires

Firefighters working to put out a blaze in Giam Siak Kecil biosphere reserve, home to rare and endangered species, in Riau on Thursday. Riau, given its proximity to Singapore and Malaysia, is the highest priority, said a deputy chairman from Indonesi
Firefighters working to put out a blaze in Giam Siak Kecil biosphere reserve, home to rare and endangered species, in Riau on Thursday. Riau, given its proximity to Singapore and Malaysia, is the highest priority, said a deputy chairman from Indonesia's National Disaster Mitigation Agency.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Indonesia says it is stepping up efforts to battle haze but critics say more helicopters, planes are needed

Indonesia's National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) has deployed three more helicopters to fight the haze-producing fires in Sumatra, bringing the total number to 13, but some environmentalists say that is still far too few.

The haze is making life miserable for as many as 22.6 million residents in Sumatra and three million in Kalimantan. It has blanketed 80 per cent of Sumatra, BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said yesterday.

Winds have blown the haze to parts of Malaysia and Singapore as well where conditions eased slightly yesterday, but the skies are not expected to clear completely any time soon.

Indonesia said it is stepping up efforts to curb the spread of land and forest fires in six provinces, including Riau, near Singapore, Jambi and South Sumatra.

But Mr Yuyun Indradi, a Jakarta- based forest campaigner with Greenpeace, told The Straits Times it is not enough.

"Roughly, each province needs at least five helicopters and two aircraft," he said, which means that 30 helicopters and 12 planes would be needed to fight the fires in all six provinces.

"More helicopters and aircraft can sustain the efforts longer," said Mr Yuyun. "It's as simple as that."

Yesterday, however, the BNPB had only two helicopters working in Jambi province and one in South Kalimantan, and planned to add a plane to its efforts in Riau tomorrow, other than its operations in South Sumatra and West and Central Kalimantan.

Riau, given its proximity to Singapore and Malaysia, is the highest priority, said Mr Tri Budiarto, a BNPB deputy chairman in charge of emergency operations, at a media briefing in Jakarta yesterday. As of tomorrow, three helicopters and two planes will be in the air there, more than in any other province.

Dry weather has reduced the water levels in the region's rivers and canals, making efforts to contain the fires challenging, especially for ground teams, said Mr Raffles Panjaitan, director of forest fire control at the Environment and Forestry Ministry, at the same briefing.

"For ground operations, each trip from a water source to a fire site could take between half an hour and two hours," he said.

In the air, water-bombing helicopters and planes are used for cloud-seeding, but a lack of clouds has hampered their efforts to induce rain. On the ground, 1,500 to 2,000 people in each province are working to put out the fires.

The BNPB is coordinating the efforts, which include not only the weather agency and Environment and Forestry Ministry, but also the military and police.

Winds over Sumatra have been predominantly blowing from the south, sparing Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia from the worst of the haze for now, said BNPB's Dr Sutopo.

While several areas in Peninsular Malaysia breached unhealthy levels on Thursday, the readings from all 52 monitoring stations throughout the country showed good to moderate air quality levels yesterday.

In Singapore, the haze is expected to worsen slightly today with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reaching the high end of the moderate range, the National Environment Agency said.

A Jakarta-based MetroTV news reporter yesterday asked Mr Raffles if Indonesia would consider using helicopters or planes lent by neighbouring countries. "We have our own resources," Mr Raffles said. "Why should we be assisted and make ourselves look like we can't handle our problem?"

• With additional information from Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani in Kuala Lumpur

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2015, with the headline 'More copters to fight Sumatra fires'. Print Edition | Subscribe