Shoot-on-sight order issued as Riau fights fires

A man trying to extinguish a fire at an oil palm plantation in Pekanbaru on Tuesday. Most of the land fires were started by locals using the slash-and-burn method to clear their land.
A man trying to extinguish a fire at an oil palm plantation in Pekanbaru on Tuesday. Most of the land fires were started by locals using the slash-and-burn method to clear their land.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fewer hot spots now, but locals still favour slash-and-burn method of clearing land

The number of hot spots in the Indonesian province of Riau went down to 27 yesterday from 121 a day earlier with the authorities stepping up measures to fight forest and peatland fires, including a shoot-on-sight order issued by the military against firestarters.

Mr Jim Gafur, head of emergency response at the Riau disaster management agency (BPBD), told The Straits Times yesterday that fire-fighting teams had succeeded in dousing and containing the fires.

He said the worst-affected areas were north of Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, Bengkalis, Dumai, and Rokan Hilir.

"The scale of the fires has declined significantly today compared with the previous two days. We are doing massive operations," Mr Jim told The Straits Times by telephone. "Fires had spread because the wind speed surged... We quickly responded to this change of weather."

Winds, which have become stronger in Sumatra as a result of tropical storm Bebinca in the South China Sea, have moved north-east.

At this time of the year, they usually blow north until November or December before turning south-west, Mr Jim said.

"Prevailing winds over the northern part of the Asean region are forecast to continue blowing from the south-west or west (towards north-east and east), and may strengthen briefly over the next few days under the influence of the (Bebinca) storm," the Meteorological Service Singapore posted on its website yesterday afternoon.

It added that it was continuing to observe smoke haze from hot spots in Riau and Kalimantan.

Mr Jim ruled out any possibility of haze moving south towards Palembang, which is co-hosting the 18th Asian Games. No hot spots have been detected in Palembang or South Sumatra so far.

"We are intensifying water bombings. We have been deploying five helicopters, two of which are bigger ones that are able to carry 5,000 litres on each trip. Ground firefighting efforts have also been intensified," Mr Jim said.

Commander of the Riau Land and Forest Fire Task Force Sonny Aprianto issued a shoot-on-sight order across Riau on Thursday against those caught red-handed clearing land by burning, state news agency Antara reported.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the land and forest fires in Riau province are related to the intentional acts of irresponsible people," Antara news agency quoted Brigadier-General Sonny as saying.

He also said that the authorities have not had much success in convincing people not to clear land by burning, acknowledging instead that the slash-and-burn method has become more widespread.

Several arsonists have been nabbed, he said, with at least three cases in Dumai city now ready for trial.

Satellites identified 121 hot spots in the province on Thursday morning - a big jump from the 22 detected on Wednesday afternoon, said the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG).

The military on Thursday also began deploying troops to fire-prone areas in the province, reported Riauterkini.com news portal.

President Joko Widodo and other senior leaders have ordered intensified efforts to combat the land fires to ensure that the Asian Games, which opens today, will not be disrupted.

The city of Palembang, in South Sumatra province, is co-hosting the quadrennial games with the capital Jakarta till Sept 2.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2018, with the headline 'Shoot-on-sight order issued as Riau fights fires'. Print Edition | Subscribe