Fresh forest fires break out in Sumatra

Slash-and-burn land-clearing is the likely cause.

FRESH forest fires have broken out in the Riau province of Sumatra as the authorities brace themselves for a repeat of last year’s environmental catastrophe.

A senior forestry official in the Riau capital of Pekanbaru said the haze-inducing fires were likely to be the result of timber and plantation firms practising land clearing by burning.

“Many companies just use slash-and-burn methods in clearing their lands,” said Mr Darminto Suteno, head of the provincial forestry office.

“We will not hesitate to punish them if they are found guilty even if they are foreign firms,” he added.

The Indonesian government, which blamed plantation and timber companies for causing nearly 80 per cent of the forest fires in the country last year, has moved to ban land clearing by fire.

But some environmental experts noted that the authorities were in a much more difficult position this year to fight the fires due to the country’s economic crisis.

Mr Darminto, citing satellite pictures obtained from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said there were 27 hot spots in Riau province over the weekend.

Yesterday, government officials said the figure could now be as high as 50.

The airport authorities in Pekanbaru said the haze in the area was “beginning to grow thicker” and visibility was put at about 4,000m.

Said Ms Ernalis H.S., an official at Simpang Tiga Airport: “The outbreak of fires and haze are signs that we are in for very difficult times.”

Mr Darminto, who said there were plans to deploy fire fighters in the hot-spot areas, had also asked for assistance from plantation companies to put out the fires.

“We don’t want to have another haze disaster,” he said.”We hope private companies don’t stay passive and help the government extinguish them.”

Meanwhile, Forestry Minister Djamaluddin Suryohadikusumo, disclosed that the government had sent a waterbomber to put out the fires raging in East Kalimantan.

The Antara national news agency yesterday quoted him as saying that there were 895 fires in East Kalimantan as of Sunday night, compared with 618 a day earlier.

“I have informed the Environment Minister about this development,” Mr Djamaluddin said.

He also said the fires could have been caused by land clearing.

Environmental experts believe that the fires could also be linked to reduced monsoon rains caused by the drought-inducing El Nino phenomenon.

They fear that peat fields in Sumatra and Kalimantan could catch fire again because of dry weather conditions.

Posted in Indonesia