Twelve named suspects as helicopters fight raging flames in Riau

Personnel from Indonesia disaster management agency, military and police working to curb forest fires that spread towards a village in Dumai in Riau province.
Personnel from Indonesia disaster management agency, military and police working to curb forest fires that spread towards a village in Dumai in Riau province. PHOTO: ANTARA/ASWADDY HAMID

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Riau Police have named 12 people suspects in land and forest fire cases in Riau province, where wildfires have destroyed 2,719ha of land in the past three months.

The police arrested six people in Rokan Hilir, Bengkalis, Meranti Islands, Pekanbaru and Dumai from January to February, according to Riau police chief inspector General Widodo Eko Prihastopo.

"Six others were caught red-handed burning land to clear land," Gen Widodo said on Monday (March 25).

All 12 suspects were farmers and residents.

Ten of the suspects are currently under investigation while another two were handed to prosecutors.

"All are individual suspects. None of them were corporations," Gen Widodo said.

The police, he said, would not hesitate to take action if they found evidence of involvement of a corporation.

The head coordinator of the Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD), Mr Edwar Sanger, said the wildfires were likely to keep spreading, as the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) in Pekanbaru was still detecting hot spots.

Mr Edwar said Bengkalis was the hardest hit regency with 1,263ha of burned land. Most districts in the regency have experienced wildfires since early this year.

However, the most severe wildfires were seen on Rupat Island, where peatland was on fire throughout February, causing thick smoke that spread to the city of Dumai on the Sumatran mainland.

Aside from Bengkalis, severe wildfires were reported in the east coast areas of Rokan Hilir (407ha), Meranti (222.4ha) and Dumai (192.25ha).

Moreover, Mr Edwar revealed that wildfires had ravaged 314.5ha of land in Siak regency, 107.1ha in Indragiri Hilir, 64.5ha in Indragiri Hulu, 37.75ha in Pekanbaru, 26.6ha in Kampar, 5ha in Kuantan Singingi and 2ha in Rokan Hulu.

Riau Police spokesperson senior commander Sunarto said the Rokan Hilir police were handling three suspects who were caught red-handed burning 7.05ha of land.

The Bengkalis police, similarly, named one person a suspect for allegedly starting a fire that hit 0.5ha of land.

Five suspects were being handled by the Dumai police in a case involving 12.5ha of burned land.

The Meranti police named two people suspects for allegedly burning 3.2ha of land while the Pekanbaru police named one other a suspect for allegedly burning 0.5ha.

"One case in Dumai and another in Meranti Islands have been handed over to prosecutors for further investigation," Mr Sunarto said.

Concerns over forest fires have grown recently, with the country having experienced an increase in damages cause by fires from 11,127ha of burned land and forest in 2017 to more than 30,000ha in 2018, Environment and Forestry Ministry data show.

The Indonesian military, the police, the BPBD and the Manggala Agni fire department are attempting to put out the flames using aerial firefighting helicopters.

"The National Disaster Mitigation Agency already lent us three helicopters. We received three (more) from private parties and one more will be lent to us." Mr Edwar said as quoted by Antara news agency.

He added that the Environment and Forestry Ministry, the police and the military would also lend one helicopter each to help with the efforts.

Sumatra and Kalimantan experienced devastating fires in 2015, with more than 1 million ha of forest destroyed and dozens of people killed.

A prolonged dry season caused by an especially strong El Niño effect was blamed for the fires. However, environmentalists and rights activists have said they believe slash-and-burn land clearing for oil palm and other plantations is the real cause.

The government has taken strong measures against forest fires ever since, including fining companies. However, it has yet to issue court verdicts in any wildfire cases involving companies.