2 die as Riau extends haze emergency over fires

RIAU, Indonesia - Riau is set to extend its state of emergency beyond tomorrow as canals dry out, forcing firefighters to travel farther for water to fight raging plantation and forest fires.

But the biggest challenge remains residents who continue to burn land.

"We managed to put out the fires, but they burnt the land again," National Disaster Management Agency chief Syamsul Maarif told The Straits Times yesterday at a disaster coordination meeting in Jakarta.

Riau media reported that the haze blanketing much of central Sumatra contributed to two deaths in recent days.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono yesterday said he had instructed law enforcement to be stepped up against those causing fires.

"Jakarta and the Riau provincial government are on top of this, but the problem has not been fully resolved," Dr Yudhoyono said. "The situation is not good."

Singapore's National Environment Agency said yesterday that haze may be attributed to hot spots to the north of Singapore, blown in by the prevailing northeasterly winds. A total of 86 hot spots were detected in Peninsular Malaysia and 228 hot spots in Sumatra.

Riau's emergency status, which governor Annas Maamun declared on Feb 26, allows disaster funds to be tapped and central government officials to take charge of firefighting and disaster relief operations.

At least 29 suspects have been arrested by Riau police so far for burning to clear land.

Yesterday, several hundred residents in Riau staged a rally, urging authorities to enforce laws consistently and transparently, Antara News Agency reported. Coordinator Herry Budiman said: "The haze problem has been endemic for 17 years, but there is no solution in sight."

One man was found dead with burns in peatland on Saturday. Police said he collapsed while riding his motorcycle close to a fire in the Meranti Islands district. Mr Muhammad Adli, 63, was found face down near his bike, with burns on his hand and waist.

Police said he might have had difficulty breathing while riding. Another man, who had lung cancer, died in Pelalawan last week.

Riau disaster agency's emergency response head Mr Ferialdi told The Straits Times the haze was not a direct cause of the deaths.

The deaths come as nearly 43,000 residents have reported respiratory infections from the haze since January amid a prolonged dry spell.

While ongoing cloud-seeding and water-bombing efforts have had some effect, fires continue to rage with air pollution in many cities remaining at a dangerous level.


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