Success at last for firefighters


Number of hot-spot areas down and visibility has improved

SIGNS are beginning to emerge that firefighters are gaining the upper hand against the forest and ground fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

Officials from the Environmental Impact and Management Agency (Bapedal) told The Straits Times yesterday that this was reflected in the declining number of hot-spot areas in the affected provinces and improving visibility.

“We are seeing some success by firefighters in the field compared to two weeks ago when the situation was very bad,” said Mr Antung Deddy, a senior Bapedal official.

He said firefighters had brought fires under control in Central and West Kalimantan, Riau and South Sumatra. Visibility levels in these areas were now more than 500m compared to 300m a few weeks ago.

But there were still fires in South Kalimantan and Jambi, in Sumatra, which still continued to be blanketed in thick haze and smoke and where visibility was below 50m.

Mr Matius Tilen of the Indonesian Forum for Environment said fires might still be burning in many areas because thick haze and smoke enveloped many areas.

“It is only logical to assume that the fires are still there because the haze has not gone away,” he said in a telephone interview from the West Kalimantan capital of Pontianak.

Mr Antung said it was still difficult to put out fires in peat fields and coastal swamplands, where the fire was underground and burning beyond control.

Firefighters also had difficulty reaching some remote areas covered in thick vegetation and which had no roads.

The firefighting efforts involve more than 50,000 Indonesian military personnel and ad hoc fire brigades set up at the provincial level. They have been joined by over 1,000 firefighters from Malaysia and specialists from other countries.

Australia, one of the countries helping Indonesia in this environmental catastrophe, has dispatched 1,500 units of fire-fighting equipment and two water-bomber aircraft for a 45-day operation.

The water bombers dropped at least 57,000l of fire-suppressant foam on several hot spots on Thursday to extinguish ground and forest fires in Lampung, Sumatra.

“Water bombing has had an immediate impact and has stopped the fires spreading further into plantations and towards local villages,” said Mr Andrew Lawson, the team commander.

But poor coordination between the team and the local authorities reduced the effectiveness of operations.

Local officials were unable to provide accurate data on the hot spots, forcing pilots to look for them on their own.

Mr Antung said that Bapedal and the National Coordinating Team for Controlling Land and Forest Fires had difficulty receiving accurate information of hot spots, particularly in Sumatra.

This was because satellite-monitoring was being hindered by cloud formation and weather conditions.

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