Indonesian President Joko Widodo yesterday (Sept 6) visited South Sumatra province for a first-hand look at forest fires that have been causing the worst haze in the past few days, as officials continue water-bombing and cloud- seeding efforts.
He was accompanied by the police chief, military chief, head of the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) and a senior Environment and Forestry Ministry official on a last-minute trip aimed at stepping up the urgency of putting out the fires.
"I've ordered the police chief to get very tough on companies that do not comply with the law... and instructed the Forestry Minister to revoke (their) licences once they are found guilty on criminal charges," said Mr Joko, who arrived in Palembang where he was met by the province's governor Alex Noerdin.
"Do not let the widespread burning become difficult to overcome, and so I have said I no longer want to talk about the cause of the problem or what is the solution. Everyone knows what needs to be done."
Mr Joko made a stop to check on the progress of the Trans-Sumatra toll road before heading to areas most affected by land burning.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya is on her way back after cutting short an official trip to Norway for climate change talks.
The visit by Mr Joko, who went to Riau last November, comes at a time when forest fires have peaked during an El Nino-linked dry spell.
So far, six provinces - Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra in Sumatra and three others in Kalimantan - have been put on emergency alert status as the number of hot spots shot up.
To speed up coordination to fight the fires, a central haze task force will be set up by today, according to the Environment and Forestry Ministry's director-general Bambang Hendroyono. The task force will involve governors of fire-prone provinces and their environmental authorities, he said.
BNPB reported visibility falling to just 200m in Pelalawan district in Riau yesterday morning. It was about 1km in Jambi.
As many as 13 helicopters are being used in water-bombing efforts and three Casa 212 aircraft for cloud-seeding across affected provinces, said BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.
The air operation is boosted by the loan of four Air Tractors from Australia which are fire-fighting aircraft capable of scooping large amounts of water and releasing them over fires. One is already being used in Riau, said Dr Sutopo.
On the ground, there are some 1,500 people in each province from local disaster management agencies, police and army, or volunteer firemen from villages.
"We are tightening law enforcement through stepped-up vigilance by police and local government officials. Soldiers are patrolling plantation areas to guard the fire-prone areas," Dr Sutopo said, adding that police have stepped up warnings against illegal land burning.
Police have caught 39 people suspected of illegal land burning this year and have sealed off their land.
Meanwhile, local media in Sumatra said organisations were distributing masks to motorists.
In South Sumatra, which had the most hot spots and land burning in the last few days, the health authorities reported 22,555 residents complaining of respiratory problems. The number in Riau was 1,002.
Flights at several airports, especially those in Riau's capital city Pekanbaru, continued to be delayed and the erratic schedule prompted some residents to resort to travelling by land, even though this took longer.