Slashing and burning in the heart of Pekanbaru

HOTEL receptionist Intan Puspitasari was heading home on her motorcycle on Sunday night when she felt hot air blowing in her face.

It became so unbearably hot that she had to stop her bike. That's when she saw a fire raging through the bushes on a plot of land nearby.

The flames shot up into the air and were at times almost two storeys high. A land about the size of a football field was burning and there were a dozen oil palm trees next to it.

Recalling the fire, the 26-year-old told The Straits Times she was shocked and angry that people were burning to clear land right smack in the city of Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province in Sumatra.

On Monday, The Straits Times team spotted several charred plots of land in the city. Smoke was still rising from the land, evidence of indiscriminate burning in the heart of the provincial capital.

It is a sign of just how common the slash-and-burn practice is. It isn't just a problem in the forested areas in Dumai and the regencies of Bangkalis and Rokan Hilir.

The Indonesian government's appeal to stop land clearing by burning forests does not seem to have reached its residents, many of whom are still unaware that an emergency status has been declared for Riau since last Friday.

The temperature in Riau on Monday hit a record 37 deg C, the highest in 42 years, according to meteorologist Ardhitama, who monitors the weather at the Meteorology, Geophysics and Climatology office at Sultan Syarif Kasim II airport in Pekanbaru.

Mr Ardhitama attributed the surge in temperature to the forest fires and urban development in Riau, apart from the impact of global warming.

Despite efforts to put out fires in forests and plantations, the haze situation is reported to have worsened in Dumai, the coastal city closest to many of the hot spots.

Antara news agency on Monday reported that families are planning to evacuate the area to wait out the haze.

A Dumai resident, Ms Mimin, told the state news agency: "They said rain fell and water bombing was carried out, but it's still hazy here. If this continues, we better move to west Sumatra temporarily."

In Pekanbaru, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) rose to the unhealthy level of about 150 on Monday, from around 100 last week. The morning haze also disrupted 11 flights between 8am and 11am.

A SilkAir flight returned to Singapore after it failed to land in the thick haze.

"Visibility was as low as 300m," said Mr Baiquni, an airport duty manager. "Pilots need a visibility level of at least 2,000m to take off or land safely," he added.

Ms Ina Ginting, 43, who made it back to Pekanbaru from Jakarta, said the pilot took off again just as the plane was about to land in Pekanbaru.

"The haze was very thick. The pilot flew one round in the sky before it managed to land," said Ms Ina who landed at about 7am, an hour before the airport closed.

Mr Ardhitama said that travellers should expect more flight delays until weather conditions improve at the end of August.

There are currently five weather observation spots in Riau and they are in Pekanbaru, Pelalawan, Dumai, Bengkalis district and Indragiri Hulu.

On Sunday evening, there were reports of rain, following a 30-minute downpour at dawn. The rainfall came after Hercules C-130 aircraft started cloud-seeding in Bengkalis district and Dumai.

But Mr Ardhitama said that "only natural rain that lasts two to three hours across the entire Riau province can clear the haze".

"There are no cumulus clouds right now. Cloud-seeding and water bombing operations would not be fruitful," added Mr Ardhitama, who warned that haze could return to Singapore any time.

"The current wind direction is from west to east and south-west to south-east. And the wind direction will remain until the end of October," he said. "Because the south-west to south-east is now dominant, it has blown the haze to Malaysia. When the west to east wind becomes dominant again, it would bring the haze to Singapore."

Meanwhile, the Disaster Management Agency continues with its cloud-seeding and water bombing efforts.

Mr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the agency's spokesman, said that 80 ground personnel - 30 from the military, 10 police officers, five civil servants and 35 residents - managed to put out the fire on 10ha of land in Tenayan Raya in Pekanbaru on Monday.

Over in Kuantan Sengingi and Indragiri Hulu, south of Pekanbaru, some 309 people helped to put out the fire on a 163 ha of forest land. A total of 265 hot spots were recorded in Riau on Monday, of which a quarter were found in Rokan Hilir district.

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