Growing hot spots on Sumatra raise fears of haze returning

A satellite photo shows fires burning in Riau on Saturday. Indonesia has said there has been "new sporadic burning" but added it was taking steps to keep the situation under control.

SINGAPORE - Singapore has registered its concerns to the Indonesian authorities over the rising number of hot spots amid fears of a repeat of last month's haze episode.

Indonesia has acknowledged that there has been "new sporadic burning". There were 252 fire hot spots on Sumatra on Monday, including 167 in the province of Riau, said the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Last month, when the haze was at its worst, there were more than 400 fires on Sumatra.

NEA chief executive Ronnie Tay has contacted the appropriate ministers in Indonesia to express Singapore's concerns and extend assistance to detect and put out the fires early. Indonesia's deputy minister for environment and social vulnerability, coordinating ministry for people's welfare, Mr Willem Rampangilei, admitted that there has been "new sporadic burning".

An NEA spokesman said: "He assured Mr Tay that the Indonesian government is monitoring the situation and taking various actions on the ground to suppress the fires, such as cloud seeding and water bombing efforts.

"He added that law enforcement and socialisation efforts on the ground have been strengthened, and the deployment of additional police and troops to the Riau area will be considered urgently in a high-level inter-agency meeting."

Cloud seeding is done to induce rain to help put out the fires.

Singapore's air quality until 4pm on Tuesday is expected to be good to moderate, although this could change with the wind, the NEA said. Lately, it has been blowing in a southerly direction, buffeting any haze away from the Republic.

The 24-hour PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) is expected to be in the good band, or less than 50. The 24-hour PM2.5 reading is expected to be slightly elevated, but normal activities can continue.

Experts said this year's dry season is especially arid.

Nanyang Technological University weather researcher Koh Tieh Yong said computer simulations indicate winds from the south are likely to persist for the next day or two, so the haze might not return yet.

"Overall drier weather may hang around for the next 10 to 15 days despite occasional showers," he said. "So if the number of hot spots in Riau and Jambi does not decrease, any subsequent change in the wind direction to blow from the west or south-west would increase the risk of haze in Singapore."

Mr Dedi Hari, World Wide Fund for Nature Indonesia's forest fire mitigation coordinator, said the hot spots are mainly in peat areas around the districts of Rokan Hilir, Dumai and Bengkalis, and were caused by dry, hot weather.

Assistant Professor Jason Blake Cohen, a climate researcher in the National University of Singapore's civil and environmental engineering department, said the fires are very likely man-made. Fires started by lightning and other natural causes in South-east Asia are "extremely rare", he said.

The increase in hot spots comes after last week's ASEAN meeting on transboundary haze in Kuala Lumpur, at which Indonesia declined to make its concession maps public, agreeing only to share them with governments.

The maps show the areas where companies are allowed to carry out activities such as growing palm oil.

Dr Nigel Sizer, director of think-tank World Resources Institute's global forestry initiative, said the new hot spots are a "cause for great concern".

The lack of published maps makes it harder for non-governmental organisations, local governments and government agencies - especially in Riau - to respond quickly, he said.

"The key thing in the immediate term is to respond rapidly and try to put the fires out before they become larger," he added.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.