Sarawak air quality hits hazardous levels

Firefighters have carried out 60 rounds of aerial water bombings near populated housing areas since Sunday, but the fires have grown in size due to strong winds. The situation is expected to last for a "minimum of one week".
Firefighters have carried out 60 rounds of aerial water bombings near populated housing areas since Sunday, but the fires have grown in size due to strong winds. The situation is expected to last for a "minimum of one week".PHOTO: THE STAR

Forest fires affect more than 200ha, triggering emergency response by state fire department

KUALA LUMPUR • Forest fires, spread over more than 200ha in the north of Sarawak, have raised air pollution to hazardous levels yesterday in areas close to the inferno, government data showed.

The fires have spurred an emergency response from the state fire and rescue department which is, at the same time, scrambling to manage nearly 8,000 people displaced by floods in Sarawak's southern region as of yesterday morning, according to the Bernama newswire.

Sensors located in the coastal town of Miri - which is closest to the fires - registered an air pollutant index reading of over 300 parts per million (ppm) as at 9am, though it went down to 185 ppm as at 3pm, the data showed. Readings above 300 ppm are deemed a health hazard.

Firefighters have carried out 60 rounds of aerial water bombings near populated housing areas since Sunday, but the fires have grown in size due to strong winds.

State fire and rescue department director Nor Hisham Mohammad told Reuters that the situation in the north of Malaysia's largest state is "quite bad" and expects the fires to rage for a "minimum of one week".

Sarawak's forests are renowned for being home to eight out of the world's 54 species of hornbills, according to the Sarawak Forestry Corporation, and also to the orang utan in some regions of the Bornean Island state.

Mr Nor Hisham said the fires are unlikely to have affected the local wildlife, as their numbers would be small because most of the timber in the area was already harvested.

The fires, however, forced local authorities to evacuate 650 students from an industrial training centre on Sunday because of the thick smoke.

But classes have since resumed yesterday morning.

Mr Nor Hisham said a total of 50 personnel, along with two helicopters and two excavators, have been deployed and are working round the clock to contain the fires.

The fire and rescue department believes local hunters had started the fires, but are still investigating the matter.

Malaysian Meteorological Department senior officer Mohd Hisham Mohd Anip said the severity of the fires was caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, which typically affects the northern region of Sarawak and the neighbouring state of Sabah.

Forest fires have increased in frequency over the past few years in Sarawak, where there are large tracts of peat soil.

This year's forest fires, however, cover more than double the 80ha in the same region scorched by forest fires in July last year.

REUTERS, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Sarawak air quality hits hazardous levels'. Print Edition | Subscribe