Indonesia widens haze probe to 3 more firms

List now at 12; multinational effort to douse fires helps improve air quality in Sumatra

Vehicles driving along Siak Bridge, shrouded by haze, in Pekanbaru, Indonesia's Riau province on Oct 11, 2015, in this picture taken by Antara Foto.
Vehicles driving along Siak Bridge, shrouded by haze, in Pekanbaru, Indonesia's Riau province on Oct 11, 2015, in this picture taken by Antara Foto.PHOTO: REUTERS

The list of corporate suspects behind illegal forest fires that have sent air pollution levels in some parts of South-east Asia into unhealthy or hazardous zones has grown to 12.

Indonesia's national police chief Badrodin Haiti yesterday said three more plantation companies had been identified in a nationwide probe into the cause of the haze crisis.

The 12 firms - nine of whose bosses were questioned by police last month - include a few run by locals, as well as others owned by investors from Malaysia and China, said General Badrodin.

The growing list comes as Indonesia opened its skies this week for multilateral firefighting operations that have somewhat improved air quality in Sumatra, one of the places worst hit by illegal slash-and-burn techniques used to clear land for crops.

Yesterday, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in South Sumatra registered some improvement, with PSI levels in its capital city of Palembang falling to 219 at 1pm after peaking at a hazardous 819 in the pre-dawn hours. It rose again into the hazardous zone at 562 at 8pm but levels in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, also in Sumatra, stayed under 150 or "moderate" for most of the day.

Thousands had fled the city about a month ago when the PSI in Pekanbaru, which is about 280km from Singapore, surged to a record 984 on Sept 14.

However, Central Kalimantan - the other badly affected province - continues to be engulfed by thick haze. In its capital Palangkaraya, where schools were shut for more than three weeks last month, the PSI peaked at 1,363 yesterday - way above hazardous levels - before falling to 684 later in the night at 8pm.

Singapore, Malaysia, Russia, China and Australia have stepped in to assist Indonesia, mainly by offering specialised aircraft for aerial firefighting.

Indonesia yesterday also launched two drones to patrol the skies over fire-prone areas to look out for emerging hot spots over dry peatlands.

The joint operations have reduced the number of fires, but the number of hot spots still remained relatively high resulting in low visibility, which limited sorties by the aircraft.

The dry season has also made it harder for fires to be put out, prompting Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan to say yesterday, during a briefing on the haze crisis, that it may take up to 10 days before the impact of the multilateral operations is felt.

"We will not be able to completely contain the fires unless we have three to four days of heavy rain," he said.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2015, with the headline 'Indonesia widens haze probe to 3 more firms'. Print Edition | Subscribe