JAKARTA - Forest fires in Sumatra may flare up as early as next month, the Indonesian authorities warned as cloud-seeding and water-bombing operations resumed this week to curb the threat of haze, which blanketed the region last year.
The head of emergency response at Riau province's disaster management agency, Mr Ferialdi, said a Hercules aircraft and three helicopters made 20 sorties yesterday to put out fires.
"Conditions are very much under control now. We also do patrols and get regular updates of conditions on the ground from local residents," he added.
Riau province is still recovering from severe fires and haze worsened by unusually dry weather earlier this year, which the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) estimates caused economic losses totalling some 20 trillion rupiah (S$2.2 billion).
Indonesian officials are bracing themselves for more widespread fires in the coming months, with Australian meteorologists predicting the return of the El Nino phenomenon as early as July.
This year's El Nino, linked to extremely high temperatures and drought in this part of the world, is expected to be very severe.
The haze-causing forest fires in Riau last year saw pollutant levels hit record highs in peninsular Malaysia and Singapore in June.
Mr Erwin Mulyana, an atmospheric scientist at Indonesia's Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), told The Straits Times that the dry weather could start next month and extend beyond October.
"The early start of cloud-seeding and water-bombing operations is in order to get adequate humidity into the ground so we minimise the risk of fire," he said, adding that conditions would then be conducive for future rainfall.
"If we wait for the fires to emerge, our task would be harder as it would be difficult to source for water," he added.
Even as officials focus on fire prevention, they are also stepping up enforcement to prevent repeat incidents.
Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya said in Riau this week that 23 plantation and forestry companies are being investigated for setting fires in recent months, and cases against five companies allegedly behind illegal burning are at an advanced stage.
"One of these companies is foreign- owned, from a neighbouring country," Dr Balthasar told reporters, declining to give details.
The minister said the local authorities should impose hefty fines on errant firms, adding: "Make them pay first. Criminal prosecution can come later."
He also said Indonesia would not accept equipment to deal with the haze from Malaysia or Singapore, though this did not preclude environmental collaboration.
He complained that both countries had characterised substandard equipment given to Indonesia as "considerable assistance", thus making Indonesia look bad, the Jakarta Post reported.
However, several local officials lamented that help from Jakarta has not been forthcoming.
Officials in Jambi, next to Riau, say they need new equipment to measure air pollution but Jakarta has not been able to agree on funds to replace the current one that was donated by Singapore.
"We need such equipment soon as the dry season is approaching," Jambi environment agency's chief spokesman, Mr Asropi, told The Straits Times.
This article was published on April 24 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.