New disaster chief for Indonesia

PHOTO: Reuters

Indonesia swore in a new chief of its National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) yesterday, as the government steps up the fight against raging land and forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The number of fires has soared in recent weeks as the dry season takes hold, exacerbated by the El Nino weather pattern that continues to strengthen. El Ninos typically reduce rainfall in South-east Asia and can cause severe drought, leaving forests ripe for severe fires.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo yesterday swore in retired two-star navy officer Willem Rampangilei, 59, who was previously a deputy to the coordinating minister for culture and human development, and in charge of disaster impacts and social affairs.

The outgoing BNPB chief, retired army general Syamsul Maarif, who has been at the helm of the agency since 2008, will officially hand over the job on Thursday.

Air quality has plunged in parts of Sumatra, and yesterday more than 300 students in Pekanbaru, Riau province, staged a street rally outside the governor's office demanding that the local government pressure Jakarta to send more military reinforcements to fight the blazes.

In Palembang, capital of South Sumatra province, air quality yesterday fluctuated between the levels of unhealthy and very unhealthy.

Mr Joko on Sunday visited South Sumatra for a first-hand look at forest fires and ordered Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, military chief Gatot Nurmantyo and the BNPB to step up firefighting efforts and accelerate prosecutions of anyone found guilty of lighting fires.

The military has added three more helicopters to the 14 already carrying out water-bombing operations in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Police have cordoned off 14 areas in Riau and have immediately started investigations.

Today and later this week, the authorities will descend on areas in South Sumatra and Jambi provinces where suspected intentional burning has taken place. The investigation will involve interviews with local residents and witnesses on how the fires started, said Mrs Siti, who attended Mr Willem's swearing-in at the presidential palace.

Mr Willem pledged to ensure fire-prevention efforts were more effective. "We need to strengthen our early-warning system, early-detection system, as well as spread the message to the residents about how dangerous forest fires are," he told reporters after the swearing-in. "We have to get more involvement from the residents to prevent fire."

This article was first published on September 8, 2015.
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