The Haze: How to fight fire with no water?

RIAU, INDONESIA - Politicians can talk and pontificate all they want but, on ground zero in Indonesia's Riau province, it is the brave and hardy souls who are bearing the brunt of fires that never seem to die.

They are on the front line of the hot spots. And it is a painful, impossible task.

Not least of their problems: How to fight fires with no water? How to go on fighting when your lungs are on fire?

At Rokan Hilir, a 10-hour drive from the Riau capital of Pekanbaru, we saw a group of firefighters, their faces stained by soot, battling a fire in one of the more remote parts of the area.

There are few accessible roads. In this remote, undeveloped area, they have difficulty finding water sources.

Fire hydrants? Haha. You've got to be kidding.

The air was thick with smoke but the sight of firefighters huddling through the bushes dragging water hoses attracted a horde of curious villagers, who didn't seem bothered by the dust particles in the air.

The flames were doused, but never completely tamed. Huge patches of scorched peatland were still smouldering, emitting heat and lots of smoke. Burning easily Made of decomposed plant material, peat burns easily, making it tough to extinguish.

Still, the firefighters were in high spirits, as if pleased that their mission was accomplished. They had been battling the blaze for a week.

Firefighter La Ode Proyek told us this was one of the last fires still burning in the area.

"It's been a hard week," the 37-year-old said in Bahasa Indonesia as his weather-beaten, tanned face broke into a smile.

"My colleagues are tired because at one point it seemed like the fires were never going to end.

"Besides, there is a small group of us fighting these fires, and given that the fires seemed to go on forever, I actually feared that it was never going to end."

Coughing is common among the firefighters and some of them are even afraid they would not make it out to see their families again.

There are other problems aside from the lack of accessible roads to the hot spots.

"The winds keep changing direction, fanning flames and spreading them," said Mr La Ode.

"We also have problems getting water supply to extinguish these fires.

"Luckily, we received some help from the firemen from a nearby oil plant or we wouldn't have done this so quickly."

Mr La Ode said his team, while jubilant that the flames were at last put out, would remain nearby because of the danger that the peat soil could start burning again.

"All we can do is pray for rain. The last thing we want is more people suffering because of this fire," he said.

zothman@sph.com.sg