Indonesia expects fewer fires with wetter dry season, movement curbs

Indonesia will likely have fewer land and forest fires this year because the dry season will be wetter in most parts of the country compared with last year, said the head of the country's disaster management agency last Thursday.

Lieutenant-General Doni Monardo also said the movement restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus would reduce the number of fires too.

The country has already detected far fewer hot spots and burnt areas compared with a year ago, he added.

Pointing to data from the Terra and Aqua satellites of Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States), Lt-Gen Doni said the number of hot spots with high confidence level fell to 892 in the first half of this year, a 40.25 per cent decline from the previous year.

A high confidence level correlates with a high probability of fire incidents. When the confidence level in an area is low, fire incidents are less likely to occur.

Lt-Gen Doni also said the areas burned in the first five months of this year totalled 38,772ha, adding that this was smaller than last year's figure.

Speaking during a webinar on the threat of forest fires amid the Covid-19 pandemic, he said: "We are more optimistic compared with last year. Firstly, it's because of the weather.

"Secondly, many people stay home. Hopefully, this will help prevent fires in a number of regions."

Last year, Indonesia struggled with extensive forest fires owing to a prolonged dry season, resulting in haze blanketing parts of the region.

Many had feared last year's fires would repeat the worst seen in 2015 when fires burned 2.61 million ha and caused US$16.1 billion (S$22.1 billion) in economic losses.

But the damage was less severe last year, with 1.65 million ha devastated, causing US$5.2 billion in losses.

Lt-Gen Doni said his agency will provide greater support this year to communities taking part in fire prevention efforts. It has prepared 14 helicopters for water bombing.

To prevent a repeat of last year's fires, the authorities began cloud-seeding operations in some parts of the country in April.

Six areas vulnerable to fires - Riau, North Sumatra, Jambi, South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan - have allocated more resources to prevent and mitigate fires.

Riau, for instance, has launched a new information system about fire-related indicators, such as hot spots and wind direction.

Mr Indra Gustari, head of climate variability analysis at Indonesia's meteorology, climatology and geophysics agency, told The Sunday Times that the dry season in Indonesia this year is forecast to be wetter, with several regions set to see higher rainfall than the average of the past 30 years.

"Some won't even have a dry season," he said, referring to the eastern part of North Sumatra and northern part of South Sumatra.

He noted that around 80 per cent of Indonesia's 342 climatic zones have entered the dry season and 70 per cent of them, including the eastern part of North Sumatra and northern part of South Sumatra, have had no rain for three weeks.

Speaking at the webinar, Mr Teguh Surya, executive director of local environmental group Madani Berkelanjutan Foundation, said four provinces - Riau, Riau Islands, North Sumatra and East Kalimantan - are most likely to see fires this year, based on the analysis of hot-spot density.

"If no serious attention is paid to the indicators of the regions' potential to have fires, we worry about losing the chance to prevent the spread of fires this year, especially amid the threat of the pandemic, he added.

In West Kalimantan, the areas burned totalled 646ha by July 25, but by last Monday, the size had swelled to about 2,500ha, he said.

Mr Teguh noted that the pandemic posed some challenges to prevention and mitigation of fires, such as budget and human resources, while burning might increase as people lose their jobs and livelihoods owing to the social restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

A haze outlook report released by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) in late June forecast a moderate risk of a severe transboundary haze incident this year. But concerns remain.

One reason is that resources to prevent and mitigate the fires would largely be diverted to the government's efforts to mitigate the pandemic's impact.

Another pertains to medium-sized companies, whose commitment to sustainability practices remain questionable, said SIIA chairman Simon Tay.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2020, with the headline 'Indonesia expects fewer fires with wetter dry season, movement curbs'. Print Edition | Subscribe