Indonesia preparing aircraft to fight forest fires

Indonesia preparing aircraft to fight forest fires
This picture taken on March 19, 2014 shows a helicopter belonging to Indonesia's Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) operated by Disaster Task Force (Satgas Bencana) conducting a water bombing in burning areas of cleared forest land in Pelalawan Regency, Riau province.

INDONESIA - Indonesia National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) is preparing to deploy 15 planes and helicopters for water-bombing and cloud seeding from now till October to combat the possibility of haze-producing fires produced by drier weather from an expected El Nino effect this year.

The estimated 534 billion rupiah (S$58.7 million) operation will set aside resources for 142 cloud-seeding operations in Sumatra and up to 10,000 men on the ground to put out or contain fires, said BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

Since the start of this month, his officials in Riau have begun weather modification operations like cloud seeding to induce rain.

"There is a serious effort now to contain fires ahead of the peak of the dry season in July to August as the season has begun earlier," said Mr Said Aqlul Amir, head of Riau's disaster mitigation agency.

His agency has also trained five men in each village to monitor fires and alert the authorities, as well as to help extinguish the fires.

These preparations come as weathermen warn of a possible El Nino pattern this year that can cause drier weather leading to more fires, prompting concerns over how prepared the Indonesian authorities are to prevent large-scale burnings.

Last year's fires caused the worst haze in 16 years, sending the Pollutant Standards Index soaring to record levels in Singapore and parts of Indonesia and Malaysia.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had to apologise to his neighbours over the haze last June. He warned farmers and large corporations that he has zero tolerance for any illegal burning of land and that those arrested will face severe punishments.

Mr Mas Achmad Santosa, deputy of a presidential working unit, told The Straits Times his agency has been leading discussions to tie up 10 programmes aimed at mitigating the forest fires.

Details being firmed up include a standard operating procedure for the prevention of fires to be adopted by vulnerable provinces such as Riau and Jambi.

Forest campaigners welcome Dr Yudhoyono's tough talk and preventive measures but pointed to warning signs of more haze ahead as enforcement remains the weakest link.

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