Extraordinary status declared as forest, land fires rage in Riau

INDONESIA - The regency administration of Meranti Islands, Riau province, has declared the forest and field fires in the region as an extraordinary situation (KLB), with the flames becoming increasingly difficult to control.

Meranti Islands Regent Irwan Nasir said the fires now covered 16 subdistricts in the districts of Rangsang, Rangsang Pesisir, Tasik Putri Puyu and West Tebing Tinggi, burning over 2,000 hectares of forests as well as rubber and sago plantations.

"It's really severe. We are overwhelmed, no longer capable of handling it," Irwan said.

He said his administration continued trying to extinguish the fires but had technically already surrendered due to limited equipment, human resources and nature.

He also said he had coordinated with the provincial administration and central government to send help to modify the weather. The fire brigades - including the one deployed by PT National Sago Prima (NSP) - were working at the maximum but the fires continued to spread.

"Our only hope is artificial rain," Irwan said.

PT NSP spokesperson Setio Budi Utomo said his company would rent a helicopter to water bomb and help extinguish the fires. "We're really overwhelmed. The 100 firefighters and 20 water sprayers are unable to halt the fires," he said.

Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) Riau branch executive director Riko Kurniawan blamed the fires on the negligence of PT NSP, a subsidiary of the Sampoerna Agro Group.

He said based on Walhi's investigation, the fires in the area belonging to PT NSP started with a small fire at K 26 block in Kepau Baru, East Tebing Tinggi on Jan. 31.

Separately, acting Riau Governor Djohermansyah Djohan said his administration had sent 100 personnel with firefighting equipment to help extinguish the fires in Meranti.

He added the provincial administration had declared emergency standby status for haze to intensify the handling of forest and land fires in the region. "We've prepared Rp 10 billion (US$822,000) for disaster mitigation purposes, including for floods and haze," he said.

Meanwhile in Jambi, haze has covered the city as forest and field fires in neighbouring provinces expand.

The local office of the Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) reported that visibility on Friday was at only two meters.

There were only two hot spots in Jambi, according to the BMKG, but hundreds of others were seen in the neighbouring provinces of Riau, South Sumatra and West Sumatra.

On Thursday, Jambi Deputy Governor Fachrori Umar received the visit of Singaporean consul for Indonesia Mark Low and Singaporean Ministry of Environment representative Tay Romire to discuss handling the haze.

Tay Romire said he was satisfied with the meeting and hoped cooperation between the Singaporean government and Jambi administration could be increased in the future.

Haze has also been thickening in Pontianak City, West Kalimantan. The head of the Supadio Meteorology Station, Bambang Hargiyono, said haze had disturbed flight activities for the last three days.

"Visibility is only 200 meters in the morning while for take-off and landing purposes visibility needs to be 1,000 meters at the minimum," Bambang said.

West Kalimantan Forestry Agency secretary Lazarus Marpaung said although haze had worsened in Pontianak, no hot spots were found in the city.

He predicted that the haze had come from the 100 hot spots detected in neighbouring Kubu Raya regency.

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