Indonesia's government has put out a draft manual for preventing forest and land fires that 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, among other things. Officials hope to test this national standard operating procedure (SOP) for forest fire management in the coming weeks and finalise it by August.
Several of the steps are already being implemented on the ground as the authorities brace themselves for a resurgence of hot spots in the coming weeks with the onset of the dry season, said Mr Willem Rampangilei, deputy to the Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare.
"We are ramping up alerts and an early warning system, including telling residents about weather predictions so they can be more watchful," he said earlier yesterday at a national seminar to gather feedback on the SOP.
Five helicopters are already conducting water bombing in Sumatra. Four military battalions, comprising 2,500 soldiers, as well as additional aircraft will be put on stand-by to be deployed if fires worsen, National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho added.
While some are sceptical that these steps will be enough to prevent a repeat of last year's severe haze, given the prevalence of open burning and an El Nino effect this year, they also signal that officials are trying to do better.
The SOP aims to fill gaps in handling fires by bringing together laws on burning, and listing in detail steps and checklists for officials on the ground to prevent and manage fires in a more coordinated manner.
An outbreak of forest fires in June last year sent pollutant levels to record highs in Riau province as well as in Malaysia and Singapore, straining bilateral ties. Officials struggled to put out these fires.
The fires flared up again in February and March, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Riau to personally direct the operation to put them out, instruct officials to stop fires early in future and ask residents to stop their neighbours from starting fires.
Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya told reporters yesterday that the attention being paid to the matter was "not because of pressure from others".
"The people who are suffering most are our own citizens in Riau... so we have to solve this because it is in our own interest," he said. Dr Daniel Murdiyarso, principal scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research, said the SOP was too focused on what national agencies had to do, and there was a need to help local officials and residents deal with fires better.
But it was a good start, and could help mitigate the anticipated spike in forest fires, he said.
"The sense of urgency is there now, and the coming months will see how well it works. Even if there are no fires in an area, you have to keep watching," he told The Straits Times.
Mr Herman Mahmud, head of the Forestry and Plantation Department in Riau's Bengkalis regency, which was severely hit by forest fires last year and this year, said the guidelines were handy.
However, he added that much of his area is peatland, where fires smoulder beneath the ground, flare up easily in dry weather and are harder to detect early.
Some 114 hot spots were detected in Sumatra on Monday and 61 on Tuesday, but the figure fell to 16 yesterday due to cloud cover over the region.
This article was first published on June 19, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.