Haze over Riau could hit Singapore soon, says Indonesia official

"Wind movement that was previously from the north and east to the south has begun to reverse, so there's a chance the haze could reach Singapore," said Mr Sugarin, head of the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) station in Pekanbaru.

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Update on the haze situation on the NEA website on Feb 28, 2014:

The total number of hotspots detected in Sumatra on Friday increased to 138 from 62 on Thursday. 70 of the hotspots were in Riau province, where widespread smoke haze was visible.

For the next few days, the prevailing northeasterly winds will keep the haze from Sumatra away from Singapore.

However, we may experience occasional slight haze due to the accumulation of particulate matter under stable atmospheric conditions, particularly in the morning.

Fair and warm conditions are expected for the next few days.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as necessary.

For updates, visit our NEA website (www.nea.gov.sg), the haze microsite (www.haze.gov.sg), or follow us on NEA Facebook (www.facebook.com/NEASingapore) and NEA Twitter (@NEAsg).

Indonesia's central govt gets involved in fight against haze

JAKARTA POST/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK (Feb 28) - The central government will send help to Riau and four other provinces to handle haze spreading from forest fires.

The government made the decision during a Cabinet meeting convened by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Thursday, following acting Riau Governor Annas Maamun's appeal for help.

Yudhoyono also convened the meeting to respond to reports saying that the country will experience another dry spell this year, which is predicted to be drier than last year's.

In the Cabinet meeting, Yudhoyono also ordered the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) to assist Riau, along with other four provinces in Sumatra and four in Kalimantan, and called for action to prosecute companies causing the haze.

"The central government needs to assist Riau, as well as other provinces. The President has ordered the BNPB to help them," Coordinating People's Welfare Minister Agung Laksono told a press conference after the meeting.

Agung said Yudhoyono gave the order although no more hotspots were found in Riau as of Thursday morning.

The BNPB reported that as of Thursday, there were 17 hotspots in Aceh, 12 in East Kalimantan, 10 in West Kalimantan, four in Sumatra and in Southeast Kalimantan.

BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho confirmed that no hotspots were detected in Riau.

Governor Annas had called on the central government to help extinguish the expanding forest and peatland fires in Riau on Wednesday, or one day after he declared emergency-response status for the haze.

He acknowledged that the Riau administration was overwhelmed with the number of hotspots, which has now reached more than 1,200, with aerial firefighting showing no results.

Riau had planned to use disaster-response funds of Rp 10 billion (S$1.08 million) from the provincial budget to lease two helicopters, each capable of carrying 500 liters of water to carry out water-bombing. However, the plan was shelved due to strong winds and poor visibility that might endanger the helicopters.

Annas has also asked law enforcement agencies to find a way to deter people from clearing forests by employing slash-and-burn methods.

The haze, originating from fires in Riau and Jambi, has also covered Jambi in the past two days.

Jambi's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) spokesperson, Kurnianingsih, said that as of Thursday, there were some 20 hotspots in Muaro Jambi regency.

"The haze impacts visibility," said Kurnianingsih. "[However] visibility has gradually improved from 1,500 meters at 6 a.m. to 1,700 m at 7 p.m."

As the country is bracing for a dry season starting in April, the BNPB said it would start cloud-seeding operations to induce rain, as well as water-bombing in the coming days.

"We will also conduct a land operation to directly extinguish the hotspots, particularly those fires on peatland," Minister Agung said.

According to Agung, around 95 percent of the forest and peatland fires were caused by humans, both individuals and corporations.

"That includes companies, not only people in the field; and also foreign citizens," Agung said. "We are also seeking civil charges to deter them."

Since 2013, the police have launched investigations in 41 cases, including those involving foreign companies from Malaysia and Singapore. Forest fires in Sumatra have been often accused of being the cause of haze blanketing Singapore and Malaysia.

Sutopo, however, said that Indonesia did not cause the current haze in Malaysia and Singapore.

"Based on analysis, the haze affecting areas in Malaysia and Singapore did not come from Indonesia since the wind is blowing in the opposite direction. The satellite also observed that there are few hotspots in Malaysia," he said.

Emergency status declared as haze worsens

JAKARTA POST/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK (Feb 26) - A number of regencies and cities in Riau have declared emergency status following worsening air quality and an increasing number of people suffering from respiratory problems due to the choking haze.

Affected regions include Bengkalis, Rokan Hilir, Indragiri Hilir, Siak, Pelalawan, Meranti and Dumai.

"We will later report this situation to the central government to get assistance from the National Disaster Mitigation Board [BNPB]," said Riau Governor Annas Maamun after attending a meeting with plantation owners on Tuesday.

He said that the provincial administration could make use of an emergency response budget of Rp 10 billion (US$860,000) to handle the haze problem. "We will also assist regencies and cities to hire helicopters and planes for water bombing purposes," he added.

Annas said that 257 plantation owners had stated their commitment to helping tackle forest fires. "They will give donations in the form of tools or cash," he continued.

As for the long-term effort, Annas said the administration will deploy five volunteers in each village to help put out fires. They will file a report with the local administration should they become unable to handle the disaster in their respective regions.

"They will be trained [for the purpose]. They will get full gear and a stipend of Rp 300,000 per month. Some companies have agreed to provide training for the volunteers," he went on.

Annas said that there would be no excuses for offenders involved in slash and burn activities. "Arrest them and put them in jail to give a deterrent effect. The legal process should run fairly whether the offenders are businesspeople or individuals. If they are found guilty, they must be punished," he said.

Riau Police have arrested 24 suspects allegedly involved in forest fires. "So far, they are not linked to any companies," Riau Police spokesman Adj. Sr. Comr. Guntur Aryo Tejo said.

The air quality index has reached hazardous levels in some regions across the province. In Dumai, for instance, air quality reached 773 on the pollutant standard index (PSI), while in Siak the level was almost 500.

Under normal conditions, the PSI range is between zero and 50; above 300 is considered hazardous.

As of Tuesday, there were 145 hot spots detected in five of 12 regencies and cities across Riau, the Pekanbaru Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) reported.

Meanwhile, the haze has left an estimated 22,301 residents suffering from acute respiratory infections. The highest numbers of cases were so far recorded in Bengkalis, Siak and Pelalawan.

"The number of patients with respiratory infections has been increasing significantly since January. At the end of January, there were [only] 5,000 patients. This is a very concerning situation," Riau Health Agency head Zainal Arifin said.

The disaster has also left people in the neighboring province of West Sumatra suffering from similar health problems, as smog has also engulfed some parts of the province.

Bukittingi Health Agency head Syofia Dasmauli said that there had been a 20 percent increase in new respiratory cases in the past two weeks, Antara news agency reported.

The thick haze has also disrupted flights, causing financial losses for airlines as they have been forced to spend extra money on fuel and passenger services.

"We are facing huge financial losses due to the Riau haze, but we cannot reveal the figure. The losses have been caused by increased fuel expenses as flights had to be diverted. And we have had to pay extra costs to passengers who had to wait at airports [following the delays]," Lion Air Sumatra branch regional head, Mahrido, told The Jakarta Post.

He said that, since Monday, Lion Air had either diverted or canceled all scheduled flights to Pekanbaru in Riau.

On Tuesday, it also canceled flights from Kuala Namu International Airport to Sibolga, both in North Sumatra, and from Kuala Namu to Gunung Sitoli, Nias Island, while flights linking Jakarta and Pekanbaru were temporarily diverted to Batam in Riau Islands due to low visibility.

Dense haze disrupts flights at Padangpariaman airport

JAKARTA POST/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK (Feb 27) - Haze blanketing West Sumatra due to forest fires in Riau and other provinces disrupted flights at Minangkabau International Airport in Padangpariaman on Thursday.

Two incoming airplanes had to return to their points of departure as visibility reached only 700 meters at the airport, Joko Sudarmanto, head of the airport's operations division, said as reported by Antara news agency.

Joko explained that an AirAsia plane was forced to return to Kuala Lumpur and a Citilink plane to Batam.

"There was no rain around the hotspots, thereby causing dense haze, especially in the morning," said Padangpariaman Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) analyst Yuni Fitria,

"However, the haze could immediately disperse if rainfall doused the hotspots," she said.

She also urged motorists to be extra careful when driving and to drive with the headlights on when there was limited visibility.

Separately, a Padang resident, Rudik, said, "I had to turn on my motorcycle headlights because the haze was denser than usual."

Riau visibility drops to 50 meters due to thick haze

JAKARTA POST/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK (Feb 24) - Worsening forest fires in some areas of Riau have reduced visibility to around 50 meters, according to an analyst from the local office of the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) on Monday.

The visibility level was recorded in Pelalawan regency, the hardest-hit area, said BMKG analyst Ardhitama, adding that visibility in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau, was also reported to have dipped below 500 meters.

"The decreasing air quality is due to the forest fires that have caused thick haze blanketing the Riau area. According to data obtained from the satellite, the number of hotspots in Riau has since Sunday increased [Feb. 23] to 1,234," Ardhitama said in Pekanbaru as quoted by Antara news agency.

Bengkalis Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD) chief Muhammad Jalal said raging fires had burned down four houses and a school building in Bukit Batu district.

"About 87 families had to be evacuated due to the worsening fires near their homes," Jalal added.

Respiratory infection sufferers on the rise in Riau

JAKARTA POST/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK (Feb 24) - The number of patients with respiratory infections (ISPA) caused by clouds of haze in Riau has increased to around 20,000 from 15,000, the province's health agency says.

"The figures are from data compiled in several regencies and municipalities since the end of January to Feb.23," Riau health agency head Zainal Arifin said in Pekanbaru on Monday, as quoted by Antara news agency.

He said that the number of ISPA patients in January was less than 5,000 but grew to 15,292 last week and that now there were more than 20,000 people were suffering from the illness. The figures did not include patients suffering other haze-related illnesses such as skin and eye irritations.

Zainal urged Riau residents to reduce activities outside of homes or buildings as conditions had continued to worsen due to smoke clouds from land fires.

He said air-pollution levels in several regencies and municipalities in Riau such as Dumai city, Pelalawan and Siak regency were considered to be "dangerous" to health.