Hot spots hard to find, even harder to put out

Mr Jaafar Arit, who heads the disaster management agency for Bengkalis regency, inspecting a peatland area in Tanjung Leban, Riau province.

DUMAI, Riau province - On the map, the red dots marking the hot spots causing the haze seemed near enough.

On the ground, however, it took The Straits Times team 12 hours to visit just three of them.

Another example of the massive scale involved in the worsening haze crisis: One red dot can turn out to be a 3,000ha plantation - about the size of four Ang Mo Kio estates.

The hot spot closest to Dumai is in Pelintung, about 35km away. But it took us more than an hour to get there because the roads were bad.

Finding the hot spot was a problem because many of them cannot be seen from the main road, and a lack of signs makes the task even harder.

Despite mounting frustration in Singapore and Malaysia, it was clear from our travels in recent days that there could be no quick solution to the haze crisis, given the scale and complexity of the problem.

This was something we found out first-hand, after meeting Mr Jaafar Arit, who heads the Bengkalis disaster management agency.

He took us to one of the worst-hit spots in the island regency of Bengkalis, off Dumai.

On the way, we lost count of the number of times our heads hit the roof of the car during the bumpy 3km ride before we came to a massive expanse of scorched plantation.

Firefighters told The Straits Times team that they faced equal difficulty in finding the hot spots and accessing them, even though fighting fires in these plantations has become very much an annual affair.

Mr Jaafar said that his men had had to camp outside the peatland because of the danger that the peat soil could start burning again after it had been put out.

Peat soil, which is made up of decomposed plant material, burns easily and often smoulders underground, making it tough to put out completely.

At one particular hot spot in Bengkalis regency, we were told that firefighters had put out the fire five times, only to see it begin burning again.

"Every time we think that we have put out the fire, it resurfaces," said Mr Jaafar.

"The firefighters are exhausted. It is never-ending. In fact, we have given up on some hot spots. There is no way we can put out the fire completely. We can only wait for rain."

Firefighters also face problems finding a water source as these areas are often undeveloped, he added. "Water pumps breaking down and water shortage are problems we face every day," he said.

He added that the weather conditions this year have been especially challenging. The winds are stronger and keep changing direction, which fans the flames and helps the fire spread faster, he explained.

There was no more raging fire by the time we got to the Bengkalis hot spot.

The flames had been extinguished, leaving a huge expanse of scorched peatland that was still giving off heat and lots of smoke.

At last, we got to see one of the sources of the smoke that has shrouded Singapore and parts of Malaysia and pushed haze readings to record levels in the past week.

Back in Dumai, the Pollutant Standards Index reading shot up to a record 492.

It was so bad that we could actually see dust particles floating in the air.