High alert in Balikpapan amid heat wave
Outbreak of fresh forest fires and decreasing visibility in East Kalimantan region.
A HIGH alert has been declared in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan city of Balikpapan following a heatwave and the outbreak of fresh forest fires there.
Local government officials contacted by The Straits Times yesterday said that decreasing visibility caused by the haze-inducing fires and a blistering heat with temperatures as high as 43 deg C had placed the city in a state of danger or “Alert One status”.
“The situation is not yet as bad as last year, but we are concerned that it could be heading in that direction,” said Balikpapan city spokesman Rusli Alfi.
He added that the haze was “minimal” and not as “thick” as last year when visibility levels were as low as 100 m. Visibility now is believed to be between 1,000 m and 5,000 m.
He said that health officials were also monitoring the pollution in the area after complaints from local residents of eye irritation and breathing difficulties.
Airport authorities said that despite some thin smoke over the area, there had been no flight delays over the past three days.
“But if the fires continue, it could cause a thicker haze and then we would have to delay flights as a safety precaution,” said the airport control supervisor, Mr Maskon Humawani.
Mr Cahyono, the editor of the Manuntung, a Balikpapan daily, said that the city’s residents were affected most by the dry weather conditions.
“The rivers are drying up and some fields are turning brown because of the heat,” he said.
There has been no rain in East Kalimantan except for a few showers early in December. The dry spell and the abundance of coal and peat fields in the area have resulted in fires breaking out in recent weeks, particularly in a forest and bush area near an oil reservoir in the Balikpapan city area.
Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare, Mr Azwar Anas, said he had sent a team to monitor the fires which had burned an estimated 2,000 ha of forest in East Kalimantan in the past week.
Besides Balikpapan, fires had also burnt stretches of bush and tall grass along the main highway linking the provincial capital of Samarinda with Balikpapan, about 95 km to the south-west.
The area around Samarinda has plenty of coal seams which catch fire during dry periods and remain smouldering beneath the soil for long periods.
The fires in the 10,000 ha Kutai national park were also said to be threatening a research centre for rare flora and fauna species.
The hot spots in East Kalimantan, which officials say number about 150, are believed to be spreading to the Central Kalimantan province of Palangka Raya.
Indonesia’s leading national daily, Kompas, yesterday quoted Forestry Minister Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo as saying that the government was planning to hire water-bombing airplanes from abroad to help douse the fires in Kalimantan.
A senior official said earlier this week that Indonesia had sufficient fire-fighting equipment and trained personnel to handle the fires. But because of the economic crisis, the authorities might be short of funds to mobilise resources.
The latest outbreak of fires has come just months after massive forest fires wreaked havoc last year in provinces in Kalimantan and Sumatra and cast a pall of haze over the region.