Four killed in East Java forest fire; haze dissipates in Sumatra

Forest fires have claimed four lives in East Java while the haze that has blanketed Sumatra and Kalimantan has begun to dissipate.

"Four people were burned to death dousing out fires in the pine forest areas of Ponorogo regency, East Java," National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said on Thursday.

Sutopo said the fire burned up a four-hectare forest belonging to state-owned forestry firm PT Perhutani in Ngilo-ilo village, Slahung district, at 10 a.m.

Sutopo reported that an officer from Perhutani named Suyitno, along with local residents, tried to extinguish the flare.

"At about 12 a.m., while extinguishing the blaze, strong winds suddenly blew in and made the fire bigger," he said.

A fire-fighting team arrived at the location at 1 p.m. and found that four people were missing. The team then searched for the missing people and found that Suyitno and three other residents, Budianto, Paijun and Jaimun, had perished because of the fire.

"Probably, the victims fainted after inhaling thick black smoke," said Sutopo.

This is the second time that people have died from a forest fire this month. Last week, climbers perished in a forest fire on Mount Lawu, located on the border region between East and Central Java.

Seven climbers died at the scene while another died three days later after receiving treatment at Dr. Soetomo General Hospital in Surabaya for burns injuries.

Fires have also destroyed protected forests on Mount Bawakaraeng and on Mount Lompobattang in Sulawesi. The prolonged dry season, exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon, is thought by many to have amplified the strength and danger of the fires.

East Java Deputy Governor Saifullah Yusuf led a gathering in Malang to bring awareness to the danger of forest fires and established a forest brigade comprising officers from varied institutions including the police, the military, BNPB, SAR and forest park management.

Syaifullah said the forest brigade had the authority to ban people from clearing land by burning forests.

He said East Java had 1.36 million hectares of forested area, or 28.36 per cent of the total size of the province, and that 4.1 per cent, or 56,000 hectares, of the forested area had been damaged.

While East Java struggles to extinguish its forest fires, the haze in West Sumatra, Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra is predicted to dissipate after rain begun to pour down over the regions.

The Padang Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency's (BMKG Padang) observation division head Budi Iman Samiaji said rain could potentially cool the provinces over the next three days.

"The haze will slowly decrease although the rain is not pouring equally over the regions," Budi said.

Small rain poured down on Padang on Friday and the visibility at Minangkabau International Airport increased from 2,000 meters to 3,000 meters.

The Bukit Koto Tabang branch of the Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) recorded particulate matter (PM10) in many areas in West Sumatra at 77 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), which is considered "moderate".

Authorities consider air quality "good" if its PM10 concentration stands below 50 µg/m3 and "hazardous" when it surpasses 350 µg/m3.

The Dharmasraya regency, which borders with Riau and Jambi, saw its air quality reduce from "dangerous" to "unhealthy" with a PM10 of 166.67 µg/m3 on Friday.