Haze blankets parts of Sumatra

Forest fires in Sumatra have intensified, with a thick haze enveloping parts of the island, prompting local officials to distribute masks.

"The acrid smell is getting bitter this evening. We feel like the haze is coming stronger on us. It is worse now than hours ago," Pekanbaru resident Didik Herwanto told The Straits Times yesterday evening.

Visibility at the Pekanbaru airport in Riau province yesterday morning was as low as 600m, resulting in one flight being diverted to Batam.

Said Mr Sugarin, head of the meteorological office at the Pekanbaru airport: "A flight was diverted to Batam this morning as we had fog and haze. Visibility at 7am was 600m, but it gradually recovered to 1,500m at 8am, and to 9km at around noon."

The situation seems to have worsened, ahead of a government effort to expand cloud-seeding operations to southern parts of Sumatra today. Cloud-seeding over central parts of Sumatra have been ongoing for over two weeks.

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Riau province reached as high as 111 in some parts yesterday.

The forest fires come as Indonesia enters its dry season, with concerns that an El Nino phenomenon could worsen this. Rainfall is expected to be minimal in provinces like Riau.

Meteorologists say the wind direction determines whether the haze will be blown to Singapore.

In this case, winds are blowing from south to north, causing Singapore's PSI reading to climb into the moderate range.

While Mr Sugarin notes that the situation in Riau is improving, he blames neighbouring provinces for the haze, saying most of it was due to fires burning in southern provinces like Jambi and South Sumatra.

However, South Sumatra Governor Alex Noerdin refuted this.

"There is a lot of the blame game going on, but we prefer to tackle the problem and talk less," he said, adding that he would officiate the beginning of cloud-seeding over his province today.

Hot spots in South Sumatra dipped to 27 from 34 a day earlier, though he admits this is no guarantee there will be no fires or haze.

The governor was speaking on the sidelines of an event held in Jakarta, where he announced that he is working with Asia Pulp and Paper to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in South Sumatra.

In Jambi, the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency spotted 29 wildfires across the province on Tuesday, reported the Jakarta Post. Local conservation initiative Muarojambi Bersepakat Movement (GMB) said fires had started in Pematang Damar forest in Muarojambi regency, burning some 10ha of land.

The forest serves as a conservation area for various rare orchid species.

"Pematang Damar forest is surrounded by fire. Unless something is done about it, the forest will be burned to the ground in just a few days," GMB deputy chairman Adi Ismanto was quoted as saying.

Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency, said the authorities will step up water-bombing operations to help douse fires, as a way of complementing the cloud-seeding efforts.

"Water-bombing operations have been carried out using two helicopters from private plantation companies. We will soon rent helicopters to beef up the operations," he told The Straits Times.

This article was first published on July 9, 2015.
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