Number of hot spots in Riau triples

Number of hot spots in Riau triples
A forest fire burns in Riau province in Indonesia's Sumatra island.

JAKARTA - The number of hot spots in Riau province has tripled as forest and plantation fires raged during a prolonged drought, Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) said.

There were 250 hot spots recorded yesterday morning, up from 80 the day before.

"Predictions are for the weather to get drier, which could increase the number of hot spots going forward," BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said in a statement.

About 150, or more than 60 per cent of yesterday's hot spots, were in Rokan Hilir district, just west of Dumai and 270km north-west of Singapore. That was the epicentre of last June's extreme haze that sent air pollution to record highs in Malaysia and Singapore.

Yesterday, helicopters carried out water-bombing operations to put out the fires; they were backed by firefighting teams on the ground.

Last night,Singapore's National Environment Agency said the hot spot count across Sumatra was 88.

"Smoke plumes and haze near the hot spots in Riau were observed to have spread eastwards to the Strait of Malacca," it said.

The surge is fuelling fears of a repeat of last year's haze and comes as Indonesia's government last week issued a draft standard operating procedure to prevent forest and land fires.

It spells out how officials on the ground, down to village heads, should monitor hot spots, set up fire patrols and identify water sources for firefighting efforts.

"The key to tackling the problem is law enforcement," said Dr Sutopo. "When peatland catches fire, it will be difficult to put out. Prevention is more effective than reaction."

Over the past eight years, he said, the number of hot spots has been highest between June and October, with peaks in August and October.

Yesterday's surge was made worse by extremely high temperatures in Riau, where an emergency command post has been set up at a military airbase in Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, and where the skies remained clear.

One resident, Mr Syahrial, who is in his 50s, told The Sunday Times: "Pekanbaru was extraordinarily hot around noon, with the temperature reaching 35 deg C, from a normal range of 31 deg C to 33 deg C. We had very little rain three days ago, after weeks of no rain."

Two Russian-made Kamov helicopters and one German-made Bolkow helicopter have been water-bombing the hot spots. A Cassa 212 and Hercules aircraft are on standby to seed clouds to induce rain.

Dr Sutopo said additional aircraft will be put on standby to be deployed, alongside four military battalions or some 2,500 soldiers, if the fires worsen.

While some observers are sceptical that these steps will be enough to prevent another severe haze - given the prevalence of open burning and the El Nino effect this year - they also signal that officials are trying to do better.

State-run Antara news agency reported last Friday that Riau police had arrested a suspect for burning land in Rokan Hilir.

"The suspect was caught holding a plastic bottle containing diesel and matches. He admitted that he planned to use the land to farm rice," Riau police spokesman Guntur Aryo Tejo was quoted as saying.

Antara also reported that another farmer, Mr Suryono, testified last week that there were "companies" that used slash-and-burn methods to clear land for commercial crops and oil palm plantations.

This article was first published on June 23, 2014.
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