Indonesia deploys more troops to fire-prone regions

It finds way to tackle cloud seeding issue, and may use drones to get real-time hot spot info

Dozens of orangutans in Indonesia are suffering from respiratory problems caused by smoke from forest fires and veterinarian Fiet Hayu says the infections are being detected in the animals by symptoms of sneezing, coughing and the flu.
Trees and peatland burn in a fire in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, on Sept 17, 2019.
Trees and peatland burn in a fire in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, on Sept 17, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

Indonesia is deploying an additional 5,600 officers to fire-prone regions in Sumatra and Kalimantan, bringing the total number to more than 14,000, as the country fights raging fires and smoke haze.

Officials are also looking at two new ways to overcome challenges in curbing the spread of the fires which have spawned haze that travelled across borders to Malay-sia and Singapore.

One new approach being readied is to rely on widely used chemical compound calcium oxide to help form clouds with potential to be seeded to induce rain. Cloud seeding operations have been on and off due to an absence of adequate dense clouds.

The second new approach being looked at could see the deployment of drones to get real-time information on the location of emerging hot spots. The current system has at least a six-hour time lag.

"We are (making) all efforts - ground efforts… everything. I have ordered an additional 5,600 troops," President Joko Widodo said yesterday in Pekanbaru, Riau, before he visited several hot spots in the province.

He has ordered a crackdown against individuals and companies responsible for the forest fires, after walking around and seeing for himself burnt trees in Riau province's Pelalawan regency, among the worst affected.

"If we see the area affected, it is huge. It is organised," Mr Joko said, adding that national police chief Tito Karnavian would disclose details of the plan to prosecute all the responsible parties.

He called on the local elected leaders and officials to do their part in tackling the fires before they spread and get difficult to control. Indonesians directly elect their respective provincial governors, regents and village heads every five years. The President cannot sack any of these elected officials even if they underperform.

"Let us give a reminder that prevention - by village heads, sub-regents, regents, Babinsa (military intelligence officers assigned to villages), local police heads, local military heads - is a top priority," Mr Joko said.

Indonesia's 34 provinces are made up of hundreds of regencies, and each regency is made up of sub-regencies.

Mr Joko added: "Prevention is more effective. Prevention does not require a lot of costs. But if (fires) have developed to the stage we are seeing, it would require extraordinary work."

The firefighters are divided into ground and air teams. Fires in remote locations and in locations far from any natural source of water have been doused using water bombing and aircraft carrying sodium chloride salt powder to be spread over dense clouds, an operation called cloud seeding.

Officials have, however, said that cloud seeding operations have been hampered as the teams have had a tough time finding dense clouds to seed to induce rain.

These clouds have not been properly formed because thick haze has effectively blocked sunshine, thus disrupting the water cycle process.

Dr Agus Wibowo, acting spokes-man for Indonesia's disaster management agency BNPB, said in a statement yesterday that his agency has teamed up with the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) to solve the issue of the lack of dense clouds.

They are readying the chemical compound calcium oxide, commonly known as quicklime, for spreading over the haze to clear the sky and allow the sunshine to come through to kick-start the water cycle process, Dr Agus said.

BPPT has readied 40 tonnes of calcium oxide at an air force airport in East Jakarta to be transported to Sumatra and Kalimantan. Three aircraft, which have a total carrying capacity of eight tonnes, will be used to spread this chemical compound above parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan hit by raging fires.

Indonesia's armed forces commander Hadi Tjahjanto, who was part of Mr Joko's entourage visiting the hot spots yesterday, said he wanted firefighters on the ground to get information on emerging hot spots faster.

"Firefighters are not getting real-time information on new hot spots, as such information (a satellite map of hot spots) is updated only every six hours. We reckoned six hours would give much room for the fire to spread," Chief Marshal Hadi said, adding that he proposed to the President yesterday to deploy drones.

"Round the clock, even late at night, if we have real-time information, we can communicate to some of the 120 (firefighting) posts and have them quickly go to the fire locations. We can see where the biggest fires are from data sent by our drones," he explained.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2019, with the headline 'Indonesia deploys more troops to fire-prone regions'. Subscribe