Lack of equipment, personnel hinders Sumatra fire-fighting

A lack of equipment and firefighters in regions hit by forest and peat fires is hampering operations as thick haze disrupted flights in parts of Sumatra.

Air quality hit hazardous levels yesterday in Pekanbaru and Dumai, both in Riau, Indonesia's second- closest province to Singapore.

The visibility level in Dumai, about 270km north-west of Singapore, was as low as 100m in the early morning. The city's Pinang Kampai airport was closed yesterday and on Monday.

"The haze this year is beginning to resemble that in 2013. Last year, the airport was never closed for two days in a row," Mr Toto Sumartono, operations manager for Pelita Air, told The Straits Times from Dumai. A minimum visibility of 1,000m is required before planes are allowed to land or take off.

In Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau, province visibility fell to 200m in the early morning.

Flights in and out of Jambi were also cancelled on Monday and yesterday.

An official of the local meteorological office warned that the problem will remain until next month, when heavy rain is expected.

"For sure, the whole of September, the weather will be dry. We are expecting very light rain above the eastern part of Jambi in the next two to three days, but that is not enough to help put out fires," Mr Bahar Abdullah told The Straits Times.

Elsewhere in Indonesia, officials on the ground continued to struggle with a shortage of equipment even though Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency has set aside 385 billion rupiah (S$38.5 million) for fire-fighting operations.

The Musi Banyuasin regency in South Sumatra province yesterday appealed to the provincial government for help as it needed to expand the scale of operations to prevent fires from spreading.

"We need them to send in helicopters to do water bombing in our regency. We have exhausted ground operations... Many fires are located in remote areas in the forests," acting regent Beni Hernedi told reporters on MetroTV.

A fire is reported almost every hour in West Kalimantan's Ketapang regency, where the local authorities said they needed more equipment and personnel, Kompas daily reported. The regency too has appealed to the provincial government for assistance.

Yesterday, an Indonesian MP apologised for the haze currently blanketing the region, The Star reported.

Mr Hamdhani Mukhdar Said, who is in charge of the environment and international relations, said he would raise the issue with the Indonesian Parliament and ask for more to be done to deal with the haze.

"I want to apologise to the Malaysian people for the haze. The annual haze is not intentional but due to the drought that affects parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan," he told reporters during a break in the 36th General Assembly of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly in Kuala Lumpur.

The haze is a result of widespread clearing of forests in Indonesia for oil palm plantations.

Not only does it affect neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, but it also makes life miserable for about 22.6 million residents in Sumatra and three million in Kalimantan.

This article was first published on September 9, 2015.
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