Flames rage beyond control in 70 areas in Kalimantan and Sumatra


INDONESIA’S Environment Ministry has identified 70 “hot spots” in Sumatra and Kalimantan where forest and land fires are raging beyond control.

Satellite pictures obtained by The Straits Times yesterday from the Environmental Impact and Assessment Agency (Bapedal) revealed that there were 46 locations where intense fires were continuing in central and south Sumatra and 24 places in central, south and west Kalimantan.

“We are monitoring the situation closely. We expect the number of hot spots to increase to more than 100 in the next few weeks,” said Mr Nabiel Makarim, Bapedal’s deputy director for pollution control.

He said that the number would rise because plantation and forestry firms, restricted by an indefinite ban on land clearing by fire, were actually stepping up the practice in the hope that they could meet their business targets before the government clamps down.

“Ironically, hot spots increased after the ban was introduced,” Mr Nabiel said, adding that satellite-monitoring showed that firms were burning land in the morning, afternoon and night. Before, it normally took place in the afternoon.

In addition to man-made fires, he said that the drought and strong winds would make matters worse.

He said: “We are up against nature and human folly. It is going to be a big battle to overcome the fires and haze.”

His comments came as the haze became thicker in parts of Indonesian and neighbouring countries.

Visibility in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau, was almost down to zero yesterday. There were no reports of accidents but traffic was slowed down significantly by the haze.

The problem was also worsening in South Kalimantan. Jakarta, which has so far been unaffected by the haze, showed signs that the smog was catching up with visibility becoming shorter.

In response to the worsening haze, the Indonesian air force began cloud-seeding operations over Sumatra last week. Mr Nabiel said that the air force planned to start operations over central and west Kalimantan this weekend but was put on hold because of the severe haze which made flight navigation difficult.

Fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan have destroyed more than 300,000 ha of forest so far but some non-governmental agencies here believe that the problem is much more extensive.

Mr Hendro Sangkoyo of the National Consortium for Indonesian Forest and Nature Conservation told The Sunday Times that up to two million ha could be destroyed in the next three months.

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