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Malaysian firefighters unhappy over slow progress

Straits Times - September 29, 1997

David Miller, Sumatra – Malaysian firefighters eager to get on with the job of fighting the forest and peat fires here have been forced to play a waiting game.

The Straits Times, which followed one team of firefighters over the weekend, found that it has only handled a handful of peat fires.

Much of the team's day involves driving along bumpy roads in military tracks following forestry officials tasked with locating underground fires.

The firemen, who are used to being in the thick of the action, seem to be growing increasingly frustrated.

While many are reluctant to criticise their host openly, several have grumbled in hushed tones about the apparent lack of co-ordination.

One firefighter, who did not want to be named, said: "We came here to help. But instead we have been sitting around most of the time waiting.

"The advanced scouting should have been done earlier. Instead they waited until we arrived. This has wasted so much precious time. I thought this was a disaster zone. Things have been moving so slowly."

While satellite photographs can locate the hot-spots indicating surface fires, they cannot pin-point the peat fires smouldering underground. Forest rangers have to check out known peat layers and rely on tip-offs from local villagers.

At one plateau in Krya Bakti, in the Kampar district about 200 km from Pekanbaru, a peat fire was found burning.

The Malaysian firefighters, using shovels, dug around the site to locate the smouldering peat layers and then used sand to put out the fire.

They had to turn over every blackened log and stone to make sure that embers are not hidden underneath.

Pointing to a scorched area of jungle about 600 m away, where new grass was sprouting, forest ranger Erwan Suhanti, said: "That is where the fire started. It was put out a month ago. But it travelled underground and started here again." The leader of the Malaysian team, Deputy Superintendent Abdul Aziz Haron, said that his Malaysian team of some 100 firemen would spend about two weeks combing the district for new peat fires.

Asked to assess the contribution his team has made to the on-going fight against these forest fires which has blanketed South-east Asia in thick haze, he said: "It is still early to say. We have not had a chance to handle many fires yet. But I expect that we will see a lot more before our job here is done."