Satellites pick up fewer hot spots

Indonesian officials not expecting 2015's haze crisis to resurface this year

Satellites have picked up about a thousand hot spots in Indonesia so far this year, but that is just a third of the number of fires detected in the same period last year.

The figures give hope that the country may avert a repeat of the haze that was almost a national emergency last year.

Two satellites belonging to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded 1,043 hot spots from Jan 1 to July 9 over Indonesia.

That was a 67 per cent decline from the 3,164 hot spots recorded in the first seven months of last year, said Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry in a statement to reporters yesterday.

A ministry spokesman said the improvement was down to "the hard work of the people, especially members of the integrated patrol teams" that helped monitor fire- prone areas on the ground.

The latest figures from the NOAA "eyes in the sky" come exactly a year after raging fires, started over plantation land and forests on the Indonesian islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra, led to one of the worst transboundary haze crises faced by the region.

Millions in Indonesia as well as its neighbours in South-east Asia were affected by the thick smoke from the fires that covered many parts of the region during the second half of last year.

Officials are not expecting a repeat of the crisis this year, mainly due to more favourable weather. But judging from the low hot spot count so far, measures put in place by the Indonesian government for the prevention and early suppression of fires may also have resolved some of the underlying causes of the haze crisis.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya, in the statement, acknowledged the efforts of the "dedicated Karhutla integrated teams" in preventing the fires. "Karhutla" is the local lingo for land and forest fires.

"This year, God willing, people will be able to celebrate Lebaran without the haze," said Ms Siti, referring to the Aidilfitri celebrations. "But we will still have to continue to be vigilant and take various measures to anticipate Karhutla."

A series of fire-fighting operations have been conducted across Kalimantan and Sumatra since Aidilfitri on Wednesday. A helicopter from Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency was deployed to put out the fires started on concession land in the provinces of Jambi and Riau in Sumatra.

The ministry has also issued stern warnings to three companies for fires that broke out over their concessions in the two provinces.

The spokesman, without identifying the firms, said that they have been given a deadline of between one and three days to put out all the fires or risk prosecution.

Individuals believed to have started the fires have also been detained for investigation, he added.

Over in Kalimantan, the local authorities discovered an area of 50ha to 100ha burnt in West Kalimantan, as well as more than 20ha destroyed in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan.

To avoid a repeat of last year's debacle, President Joko Widodo has ordered the authorities to get tough on errant farmers and companies that use fire to clear land, while fire-fighting resources have been beefed up in high-risk areas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Satellites pick up fewer hot spots'. Print Edition | Subscribe