Malaysia's firemen gear up for battle ahead of El Nino

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia's firemen are bracing for blistering days ahead after their brief respite from battling thousands of forest and peat fires between January and March.

The El Nino phenomenon, set to start soon and last until August, is expected to stretch their limits and firefighting capabilities.

The Fire and Rescue Department was ready to face the challenges brought by El Nino, said its director-general Wan Mohd Nor Ibrahim, adding that dealing with the earlier spell had allowed them the opportunity to assess their capabilities and gear themselves for the next round.

Among the challenges, he noted, was that the department's manpower - 26,000 firemen and volunteers - and machinery were not enough.

"Sometimes, we only have enough manpower to handle one emergency. If there were to be two or three fires at the same time, it will be tough.

"We need support from volunteers and agencies like the Forestry Department, Civil Defence Department and Rela to increase our workforce," he pointed out.

"We need more pumps, hoses and equipment to help put out forest fires easily. We requested RM70 million (S$27 million) additional allocation in May for this purpose," he said in an interview.

The fire department also needed three-tonne and five-tonne lorries and four-wheel drive-vehicles because fire engines could not be used for off-road operations, Mr Wan Mohd added.

He said the department was allocated RM120 million this year for it to get emergency medical service vehicles and water tanker lorries.

He added that the department currently had seven helicopters - five in the peninsula and two in Sarawak.

"They are used to fight forest fires, too. In fact, we did use the helicopters during the dry spell."

He said that with the drought, fire-fighters had to source water from lakes, rivers and ponds, adding that water from fire hydrants was not always sufficient even during normal days.

"So we will need longer hoses and pumps.

"We are now acquiring water tankers with high capacities of 20,000 litres per tank," he said, adding that the department currently had 30 water tankers with 20 more to be delivered soon.

Fortunately, the cases of open burning, forest fires and peat fires had been on the decline, said Mr Wan Mohd.

"During the peak of the dry spell in February and March, 9,424 and 9,467 cases were reported respectively. In April, it dropped to 1,975 cases, with 1,148 cases in May."

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