Fire fighters on the Indonesian island of Sumatra are toiling around the clock to extinguish forest fires as the government wants to make sure the Asian Games to be held next month in Jakarta and Palembang will not be marred by acrid smog.
Peat and forest fires have broken out in parts of Sumatra in recent days, officials said, including in a district near Palembang, where some of the Asian Games events will be held.
In Jambi province, fires have affected forest areas covering 160 hectares (395 acres), said Bachyuni Desliansyah, the provincial disaster management agency chief.
“We work night and day to extinguish the fires,” Bachyuni said, adding that the effort involved soldiers, police and the Forestry Ministry fire brigade, known as Manggala Agni.
“Most of the fires have been put out, but the threat of new fires is ever-present because there are always those who ignore warnings not to use fire to clear land,” he said.
The slash and burn method blamed for forest fires is illegal but is the cheapest way for small-time farmers and companies alike to clear land for planting.
Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra province, will host the Aug. 18 to Sept. 2 Asian Games jointly with Jakarta. About 11,000 athletes and several thousand foreign visitors are expected to attend.
Forest fires have broken out in the Ogan Komering Ilir district, about 70 km (43 miles) from Palembang, raising fears that smog could drift to the city and disrupt events.
“The fires are being handled effectively,” said Raffles Panjaitan, the Forestry and Environment Ministry’s director for forest fire management, who was in Ogan Komering Ilir to inspect the effort.
“We’re confident that the Asian Games won’t be affected by haze because all parties involved are working very hard,” he said.
In addition to firefighters on the ground, five helicopters have dropped water bombs over South Sumatra, local Air Force chief Heri Sutrisno told Detik.com news portal.
Armed forces chief Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto said aircraft with weather modification technology was sent to Sumatra on Monday to create rain through cloud seeding.
“We have seen reports of a cyclone in the Philippines. We’ll catch its tail and seed it so as to trigger rain in South Sumatra,” he said.
Fires decreased since 2015
Forest fires are an annual hazard in Indonesia and the resulting haze sometimes travels to neighboring Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand, sending air quality to unhealthy levels.
But Indonesia has seen fewer forest fires since 2015, when 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) of forest and peat areas burned as the dry season was exacerbated by the El Niño weather phenomenon.
About 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of peat and forest areas in Indonesia burned in 2016 and only 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) last year, said Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
“The government’s efforts to prevent forest fires have been largely successful. It’s impossible to stop the fires completely,” Purnomo told BenarNews.
“This year the issue is of critical importance because we’re hosting the Asian Games. Authorities at all levels and the private sector are working hard to put out the fires,” he said.
Peat fires are especially hard to extinguish as they can burn several meters deep, Bachyuni said.
“About 22 percent of this year’s fires in Jambi occurred in peatland,” he said. “We have to put them out as soon as possible before they get bigger and out of control.”
The government has been criticized by environmental groups for a plan where timber and paper companies will be given new land if their existing concessions include at least 40 percent of restored peatlands.
An analysis released last week by a coalition of environmental groups suggested that about a quarter of the 921,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) to be given to the companies in return for restoring peatland to natural forest.
“This contradicts the government’s pledge for a moratorium on issuing new licenses for natural forests,” said Syahrul Fitra, a campaigner for the environmental group Auriga.
Purnomo said areas designated for land swaps should be degraded forest land.
“There’s a lot of degraded land. About half of production forest areas are degraded lands,” he said, referring to land that has lost some of its natural productivity because of human activities.
The U.S. space agency NASA has created a tool that shows fires and hotspots around the world by superimposing temperature data on near real-time satellite imagery.
To check for today’s hotspots, open the link to NASA Worldview. Red dots represent fires or volcanic activity. To obtain the latest imagery, move the grey slider at the bottom of the screen to the right.
Not all fires may be pictured because of cloud cover or their relatively low intensity.
“Peat fires can smolder in the subsurface for weeks to months after ignition, often at temperatures too low to be detected accurately from space,” according to a study by researchers at Columbia and Harvard universities.