Task force needs about 10 days to douse Sumatra fire: Minister

The multinational task force helping Indonesia to put out fires in South Sumatra has met with some success, but it will take about 10 days before the flames can be largely extinguished, said a minister.

"We will not be able to completely contain the fires unless we have three to four days of heavy rain," said Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan at a briefing on the haze crisis yesterday.

He was alluding to the extended dry weather, exacerbated by a longer El Nino season this year, which has made it harder to completely douse the fires on peatlands starved of rain.

Besides the dry season, the smoke from forest fires has reduced visibility in the skies, limiting the number of sorties for water-bombing or cloud-seeding operations.

Indonesia this week opened up its skies to groups from Singapore, Malaysia, Russia, China and Australia for multilateral firefighting operations focused on South Sumatra's Ogan Komering Ilir and Musi Banyuasin regencies. These are among the worst hit by the fires this year.

The Indonesian authorities have also ramped up enforcement efforts - against not just individuals, but also corporate bigwigs linked to illegal forest fires causing the haze.

National police chief Badrodin Haiti said that of the 48 plantation companies being investigated for illegal forest fires, 12 have been declared suspects.

These firms, run by Indonesians or owned by investors from Malaysia and China, are in addition to as many as 209 individual suspects not officially linked to any firms.

The 12 companies face fines of between 3 billion rupiah (S$300,000) and 10 billion rupiah, and their boards of directors may be jailed for up to 10 years if found guilty, said General Badrodin yesterday at the same briefing in Jakarta.

This move comes after Indonesian President Joko Widodo gave the police the unprecedented order of tracking down owners of firms suspected of being involved in starting the fires.

Meanwhile, the majority of the multilateral firefighting resources have been deployed in South Sumatra, where conditions had worsened in recent weeks, said Indonesia's disaster management agency, BNPB.

"This morning, the conditions were still very bad in Ogan Komering Ilir, the main operations zone," said Mr Luhut, who has of late taken the lead in resolving this latest haze crisis. "The severity of the burning was very high."

The number of hot spots as of yesterday morning fell only slightly compared with the day before, he said. This has reduced visibility in Ogan Komering Ilir to about 100m.

Operations by the multinational groups deployed to fight fires in South Sumatra began on Sunday.

A Republic of Singapore Air Force CH-47D Chinook helicopter hauling a 5,000-litre heli-bucket arrived in Palembang at the weekend and operated alongside a Bombardier CL415 water bomber from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. These aircraft joined two water bombers from Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry and six choppers from the BNPB.

More reinforcements are expected to arrive, said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. They include an L-100 Hercules water bomber from Australia, which will arrive today, and two Beriev Be-200 water bombers from Russia, said Ms Retno.

She added that Japan will soon send chemistry experts who are expected to help Indonesia enhance additives to boost the water-bombing operations.

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This article was first published on Oct 13, 2015.
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