Indonesian officials act on haze in Riau

JAKARTA - A team of senior Indonesian officials from several agencies will visit Riau province today to audit plantation and logging companies on their readiness to manage forest fires.

This comes as a resurgence of such fires saw a surge in hot spots and sent the air pollutant index in the Kuala Lumpur area above 100, signifying unhealthy levels, yesterday.

The visit also comes as Malaysia called for immediate action by Indonesia to put out the fires that have been causing haze on Peninsular Malaysia since Sunday, as well as prevent further fires.

Malaysian Environment Minister G. Palanivel said his ministry's director-general had written to her counterpart to express concern about the rise in hot spots, Bernama news agency reported.

The audit appears aimed at putting pressure on major firms to take action as satellite data continues to show fires on their concessions. It is also part of the authorities' efforts to prevent a repeat of last June's haze outbreak that sent pollutant levels to record highs in Malaysia and Singapore.

"The team will examine land management activities of companies and their preparations for fires," Forestry Ministry director of forest fire control Raffles Panjaitan said.

Yesterday, Indonesia deployed three helicopters and two aircraft for water bombing and cloud seeding to combat the fires, as 366 hot spots were detected in Riau, up from 97 on Tuesday.

By 4pm local time, the number of hot spots was down to 68.

"The prevailing wind is heading east-northeast. The likelihood of smoke haze travelling to Singapore and Malaysia will heighten if this is not immediately tackled," National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said.

If fires worsen, more helicopters will be deployed, taskforce commander Muhamad Khairul Lubis told reporters in Riau's capital, Pekanbaru.

In Singapore, the three-hour PSI reading stood at a moderate 52 at 7pm yesterday. But companies are taking precautions, from stockpiling masks to making plans to suspend outdoor activity, should air quality worsen.

The El Nino weather phenomenon is likely to see drier-than-usual conditions and more fires in the coming months. Dr Sutopo said rainfall in Riau is expected to be under 50mm in August.

He said most of the fires were started by deliberate burning.

Riau police spokesman Guntur Aryo Tejo told reporters that some 170 suspects had been arrested for burning and illegal logging since the start of the year.

Many of the other fires detected last week were within concession areas of pulp and palm oil companies or their suppliers.

The World Resources Institute, by mapping satellite data, found that from June 17 to June 23, 75 hot spots were found within concession areas of five suppliers to Asia Pulp and Paper and 43 hot spots were within areas of one supplier to Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (April).

Yesterday, April unit Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper signed a pact with the Riau Province Disaster Management Agency to provide a company helicopter, water pumps, firefighter training and help to equip communities in 30 villages to be alert to fires, as well as conduct joint patrols with the disaster agency.

This article was first published on June 26, 2014.
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