Tough battle for Singapore team fighting fires in Sumatra

Members of the combined Singapore Armed Forces-Singapore Civil Defence Force firefighting assistance team rigging a 5,000-litre heli-bucket to a CH-47D Chinook helicopter before a water-bombing operation in South Sumatra. The team was deployed to the
Members of the combined Singapore Armed Forces-Singapore Civil Defence Force firefighting assistance team rigging a 5,000-litre heli-bucket to a CH-47D Chinook helicopter before a water-bombing operation in South Sumatra. The team was deployed to the Indonesian province last Saturday.PHOTO: MINDEF

Dense haze, low visibility make conditions challenging for 40-member contingent

A 40-strong team from Singapore helping Indonesia battle the raging forest fires in South Sumatra has achieved some success in reducing the number of hot spots.

Pollutant Standards Index levels, however, continued to fluctuate between hazardous and unhealthy in the province for much of yesterday.

Air pollution levels in Palembang, the capital city of South Sumatra, peaked at a PSI of 530, before falling to 212 later in the evening.

It was worse in Central Kalimantan, the other region badly hit by the haze. The PSI in its capital Palangkaraya rose to 1,200 at 8am, and while this fell to 600 at about 6pm yesterday, it is still way above the hazardous level of 350.

Three aircraft and 34 men from the Singapore Armed Forces were deployed to South Sumatra - one of the worst-hit areas during the ongoing haze crisis - last Saturday.

HIGH TEAM MORALE

The team members are all very well-trained and prepared to undertake the missions that are expected. I'm confident that we will do a good job and, at the end of the operation, return to our families safely.

MISSION COMMANDER LIEUTENANT-COLONEL VINCENT TAN

They were accompanied by a six-man Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

The combined force often encountered high levels of air pollution and low visibility.

This makes the firefighting operations all the more challenging, said mission commander Lieutenant-Colonel Vincent Tan, 45.

"The very obvious challenge is the haze itself," he told Cyberpioneer in a report out on Wednesday.

"There are two aspects to it: One is the visibility that affects largely the people who are flying the heli-bucket operations.

"The second aspect is the pollutants in the air that have adverse effects on our people - not just the guys who are flying but on the ground as well."

Their efforts, however, helped reduce the number of hot spots in Sumatra earlier in the week.

On Monday and Tuesday, satellites detected just 156 fires - down from a recent peak of more than 725.

This was attributed to a combination of rain over the region as well as the multilateral firefighting operation in South Sumatra, which is being led by the Indonesians and also involves a team from Malaysia.

Team morale in the Singapore team remains high despite the harsh conditions, said LTC Tan.

"We see the purpose in coming here to help our neighbours.

"The team members are all very well-trained and prepared to undertake the missions that are expected. I'm confident that we will do a good job and, at the end of the operation, return to our families safely."

Lieutenant Samuel Ten, the aerial cargo rigger responsible for securing a 5,000-litre heli-bucket - used by the SCDF to douse fires from the air - to the Chinook helicopter before take-off, said his team is working very well with the Home Team officers.

"In fact, we just completed a good mission today, finding more water sources and landing sites for the helicopter," said the platoon commander of the Air Terminal Company from the 3rd Transport Battalion.

The multilateral water-bombing operation continues this week.

On Wednesday, South Sumatra governor Alex Noerdin visited the combined SAF-SCDF assistance team to thank them for their assistance in resolving the crisis.

In Singapore, Law Minister K. Shanmugam also acknowledged the efforts of the Singaporeans on Facebook.

"Conditions are challenging, with poor visibility and dense haze," said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Home Affairs.

"The firefighting is taking place in difficult conditions. Our thoughts are with our officers."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2015, with the headline 'Tough battle for Singapore team fighting fires in Sumatra'. Print Edition | Subscribe