Indonesia sees fewer hot spots as authorities clamp down on Sumatra forest fires

Smoke rising from a peatland fire in Pekanbaru district in Riau province, on Indonesia's Sumatra Island. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Efforts by the authorities on Sumatra island to prevent and suppress land and forest fires early, have kept the number of hot spots in Indonesia low so far.

Latest satellite data showed that despite temperatures rising and the dry season setting in - both precursors to the annual haze problem - only nine hot spots were detected in Sumatra on Friday (July 8).

This was down from the 49 picked-up over the same areas on Wednesday and substantially lower than the 245 recorded last Sunday.

The Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre in its latest forecast on Friday evening indicated that were only isolated hot spots detected in parts of Sumatra.

Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho attributed the improvement to "better anticipation" of what causes the fires and containing them early.

Water-bombing operations are underway and the Riau provincial government fire-fighting task force has been supplemented by officers from the Provincial Disaster Mitigation Agency, soldiers, policemen as well as other volunteer groups.

Dr Sutopo was quoted as saying in the Jakarta Globe on Saturday that the few fires that are still burning are those located in hard-to-reach areas.

As with previous years, forest fires were expected during Aidilfitri, according to the BNPB.

The outbreak of fires, however, did not affect the local residents or wildlife in the area, said Dr Sutopo.

"There have been no reports of any impact on the community... and the air pollution standard index is still in a healthy level," he added.

The rampant burning of land in Sumatra last year, produced the thick smoke that led to one of the worst transboundary haze crisis, which affected millions in South-east Asia.

It was exactly one year ago, between July 8 and 9, when reports of the toxic haze blanketing parts of Sumatra first hit the headlines.

The acrid smell from the smoke then prompted local officials to distribute masks, while visibility at the Pekanbaru airport in Riau province dropped so low that flights had to be diverted elsewhere.

When the crisis peaked in October last year, there were more than 700 hot spots across Sumatra.

These fires, including hundreds detected in Kalimantan, raged for more than three months, causing more than half a million Indonesians to suffer from respiratory illnesses. At least 19 of them died.

The fires finally abated in November with the arrival of heavy rainfall.

To avoid a repeat of the debacle that brought Indonesia on the verge of a national emergency, President Joko Widodo has since ordered the authorities to get tough on errant farmers and plantation companies that still use fire to clear land.

The cultivation of carbon-rich peatlands has also been was banned and Mr Joko has also set up the country's first Peatlands Restoration Agency to "re-wet" millions of hectares of forests and peatlands over five years.

Regional authorities now also have the ability to mobilise tens of thousands of firefighters, including soldiers and those engaged by private plantation operators, in high-risk areas to ensure a faster response when a fire breaks out.

Satellite imagery detected about 730 hot spots so far this year, down from more than 2,900 in the first six months of last year, according to latest data from the BNPB.

Indonesian officials are not expecting a repeat of the crisis this year, though that may be due more to favourable weather than progress in addressing the underlying causes of the blazes.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.