US-Canada model could hold lessons for haze fight

When it comes to managing forest fires and the resulting transboundary haze, Indonesia and the region can learn from countries such as Canada and the United States, said experts in the field.

The two countries often face transboundary haze issues of their own when smoke from large forest fires drifts across national borders, said Dr Nigel Sizer, global director of the forests programme at Washington, DC-based think-tank World Resources Institute.

To deal with the issue, the two countries signed the Canada/ United States Reciprocal Forest Fire Fighting Arrangement (Canus), which lays out the conditions under which resources can be shared, how resources will be made available and what costs are involved, said Dr Sizer.

Through the agreement - which dates back to 1982 - firefighters, equipment and technical assistance cross borders frequently. Dr Sizer said it is now "fairly well-established and could be used as a model for other regions".

The National Interagency Coordination Centre (NICC) oversees all interagency coordination activities for fighting wildfires in the United States.

It utilises a three-tiered system of support: When a fire is first reported, it will be dealt with by a local agency and its firefighters; if more resources are needed, the local agency reaches out to the larger geographic area (there are 11 in the US) for help; and if further assistance is required, the NICC can be called in to mobilise resources across the nation.

The NICC can also request the help of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

In addition to the agreement that Canada has with the United States, "requests for assistance from other countries are negotiated on an as-and-when basis", according to the Canadian centre's website.

Besides Canada, the US also has agreements with Australia and New Zealand.

While the Canus can be used as a model for Asian countries, experts point out that the fires in Indonesia are different because they are largely a result of the slash and burn method.

"In the US, the federal Clean Air Act sets particulate emission standards, enforced at the state level. The use of fire for vegetation management is thereby limited to the windows in time where such fires will not create violations of those standards," said professor of forest economics Keith Gilless from the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr Sizer noted that "any international collaboration on the fires in South-east Asia should take these complexities into account".

The experts also say forward planning is required to ensure fires do not spread and get out of hand.

Mr Rick Swan, the International Association of Fire Fighters' director of wildland fire fighting and safety response, suggests pre-planning the burning of land so that there can be "pre-deployed (fire) suppression crews" and the weather can be taken into consideration to minimise smoke in large populated areas.

Advocating a higher level of international co-operation in combating the problem in Indonesia, Dr Sizer said: "In the case of a fire and haze emergency, like we are seeing now, there needs to be a protocol that is understood by all the countries involved as well as systems to share information and resources."

"The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution provides the rough framework for this, but a more detailed protocol - and trust - is needed between the countries for it to work," he added.

simlinoi@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on October 16, 2015.
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