Dumai is epicentre of haze

Thick haze in Dumai, located in Riau, Indonesia resulted in near zero visibility on 23 June 2013.

DUMAI, INDONESIA - Sitting at a stall by a centre coordinating efforts by a special unit to fight peat fire, one of my newly-made friends asked if Malaysia could send help to put an end to the smog from peat fires.

"We have minimal equipment, only a water pump and hose to put out the smoke," said the man named Nafi.

"Hopefully, Malaysia could send an aircraft to help us," he added.

Cameraman Lim Cheng Kiat and I were to cover the haze in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau, a province in Indonesia on the island of Sumatra. Dumai wasn't in our plan.

But we decided to come here anyway as the people in Pekanbaru told us that Dumai was "the epicentre of the haze".

Leaving our hotel in Pekanbaru at about 7am on Monday, it took us about six hours to arrive in Dumai using the Jalan Lintas Timur.

The 250km journey passed through Kandis, Bengkalis, Duri, Simpang Bangko, Bukit Timah, Minas, Ujung Tanjung and Rokan Hilir before reaching Dumai.

The haze was bad as we were leaving Pekanbaru, unlike a day before when the air quality had improved.

Our supir (driver) Tarmi said the skies looked dirty, the air smelled bad and "the sun look sick", referring to the ochre-coloured sun.

There were signs along the route, reminding motorists it was accident-prone. There had already been several road casualties in the area.

Along the way, we saw evidences of the slash-and-burn methods used by the traditional farmers.

We made a detour at Jalan Bukit Timah, Mandau, after seeing smoke billowing from a distance.

Entering the jalan kampung (village tracks), we saw dark smog coming from the pineapple farms and other plantations belonging to villagers. Much of the undergrowth was being burned and turned to ashes.

We stopped by the roadside. Tarmi and I entered the plantation area and I lost my balance while stepping on the dried tree trunks.

My legs sank into the peat soil which was up to almost knee high and my RM125 (S$50.30) sandals got caught in it.

We stopped at the special unit post to clean up and to chit-chat with the staff there. They were on their lunch break at a nearby stall.

Unit commander Ustil said the peat soil fire started in Simpang Bako a month ago, adding that it was not due to slash-and-burn but more so by the on-going dry season.

He said that 1,000ha of pineapple farms and thousands of hectares of estates had been razed, causing huge loses to smallholders.

Others who joined us at the stall - Dodi, Putra and Coki - wanted to know how bad the haze was in Malaysia and were surprised when told that schools were forced to close.

Nafi joked: "Ya Pak, Indonesia expor asap dengan TKI ke Malaysia, Malaysia pula expor narkoba sama teroris ke Indonesia." (Indonesia exports smoke and manpower to Malaysia, Malaysia in turn exports drugs and terrorists to Indonesia.)

For more haze updates from AsiaOne, click here: