New Indonesian fires cause haze, flight delays

FRESH forest fires have broken out in Indonesia’s east Kalimantan province, resulting in thick haze which has forced several flight delays in and out of the city of Balikpapan.

Mr Nabiel Makarim, a senior official of the Environmental Impact Management Agency, told The Straits Times yesterday that the government had identified 30 fire spots in the province over the past week.

“We are alarmed by this high figure and are keeping a close watch on the situation.”

He added that the agency had contacted Environment Ministry officials in Singapore to get satellite pictures to confirm the location of the hotspots. He said it was still too early to determine if the haze would affect neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia as it did last year.

The agency has alerted the local governor to make preparations for fire-fighting if the fires continue to rage, and has sent three environmental officials to determine the cause of the fires.

He said that besides prevailing dry weather conditions, “it is possible that land clearing by burning could be responsible”.

This latest outbreak in the province has come just months after massive forest fires wrecked havoc last year in provinces in Kalimantan and Sumatra and cast a pall of haze over the region.

The fires, which caused losses estimated at 132 billion rupiah (S$29.6 million), destroyed more than 165,000 hectares of forest, though the environmental watchdog, Walhi, believed the figure was higher.

Mr Maskon Humawani, Balikpapan’s airport control supervisor, said yesterday that pilots had reported forest fires 48 km and 144 km north of Balikpapan. “They detected fire spots while enroute to the airport,” he said, adding that the airport authorities were anticipating more problems such as flight delays if fires continued.

“There has been no rain for some time and we expect the fires to rage on for a while.” He noted that several morning flights were delayed late last week because visibility was reduced to 1 km.

In Singapore, the Meteorological Service’s deputy director Wong Teo Suan said its satellite pictures show the haze is caused by smoke from small-scale fires over the eastern and southern parts of Kalimantan in the later half of January. He said the fires are too small to have an impact on Singapore.

“It is nothing close to the scale we have observed in the last haze. The fires are very isolated, and are concentrated in a few specific spots.

“There is absolutely no cause for alarm. We have informed the authority concerned and will continue to monitor the situation.”

He added: “The monsoon wind is still blowing from the north-east direction, so we should be all right. Even if it changes direction, we will still not be affected, because the fires are too small to have an impact on us.”

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