Thousands flee Pekanbaru as haze hits record high

A board in Pekanbaru in Riau province displaying the air quality as "berbahaya" or "dangerous", on Sunday.
A board in Pekanbaru in Riau province displaying the air quality as "berbahaya" or "dangerous", on Sunday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Thousands are fleeing Pekanbaru as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in the Riau province capital, which is about 280km away from Singapore, surged to a record 984 yesterday.

Many have taken to the roads, trying to find their way north to neighbouring Medan, or west to Padang, to escape the thick haze that has rendered their hometown unliveable.

The exodus via land includes people who had initially planned to fly out of the city, after their flights were grounded owing to the poor visibility caused by the haze from forest fires in the provinces of Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra.

Pekanbaru resident Benny Sukma Negara said he hightailed for West Sumatra by car yesterday after the haze hit hazardous levels.

This despite efforts by the Indonesian emergency services to douse the blaze by air, after ground operations had failed to keep the fire from raging over the weekend.

"The haze has permeated into our house over the last three days and it's getting worse," said Mr Benny, a university lecturer. "We wore a mask even inside our home."

According to Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), there were 1,143 hot spots in Sumatra as of 5am yesterday. These comprise 724 in South Sumatra, 234 in Jambi, 78 in Riau, 69 in Lampung, 25 in West Sumatra, and 13 in Bengkulu.

In Kalimantan, there were 266 hot spots.

BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said the large number of hot spots is proof that the illegal burning of peatland has continued despite stepped-up enforcement.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar yesterday declared a haze emergency in Riau province. She said Riau Acting Governor Arsyadjuliandi Rachman had also set up aid stations at several locations.

The minister's move, however, came too late for Wahyuni, a student from Jambi. The 15-year-old died last Friday after coughing for three days prior to her death. She was said to have had difficulty breathing because of the haze.

"We knew Wahyuni had a pre-existing heart condition," said her mother, Ms Nuraini. "Her heart was weak but she never had breathing difficulty like this before."

Mr Roni Amriel, an MP in Pekanbaru, said the city is no longer liveable because of the haze, and asked the municipal government to start evacuating residents.

"Action must be taken, including evacuation," said Mr Roni, adding that the ideal destination for evacuees is West Sumatra, which shares its borders with Riau. He also said Pekanbaru city, the province of Riau, or the central government could foot the bill for the evacuation.

Visibility in Pekanbaru was reduced to between 100m and 200m yesterday afternoon, while Dumai and Pelalawan - which are also in Riau - had a visibility level of 50m.

Businessman Agus Suharsono and his family, who were planning to fly from Sultan Syarif Kasim II Airport in Pekanbaru to Jakarta, were huddled at the air terminal yesterday after their flight was delayed because of the haze.

"We hope we can get a later flight," said the 59-year-old. "Two of my four children are already developing (upper respiratory tract infection)."

Dr Slamet Budiarto, who heads the Jakarta Chapter of the Indonesian Doctors' Association, said the PSI reading of 984 should "trigger an evacuation". He added that at that level, the haze could cause nausea and physical weakness and, in the long term, may lead to cancer.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline Thousands flee Pekanbaru as haze hits record high. Subscribe