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Indonesia's Riau province lifts state of emergency to fight forest and land fires with the onset of monsoon

Straits Times - November 1, 2019

Linda Yulisman and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Jakarta – The state of emergency imposed on the Indonesian province of Riau following the recent bout of forest and land fires and haze has been lifted.

Mr Jim Gafur, the head of emergency response at the Riau disaster management agency, said on Friday (Nov 1) the situation on the ground was "very conducive" with the arrival of the monsoon season.

"There (have been) no more hot spots since Oct 26, and there are no more fires," he told The Straits Times.

He added: "But personnel are on standby and continue to monitor the situation (on the ground). They will immediately respond whenever a fire breaks."

Mr Gafur said that with the formal ending of the emergency status on Thursday (Oct 31), the Riau government has disbanded the fire task force and a number of firefighters have returned home.

Riau, which is close to Singapore, was among six provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan that were largely affected by the forest and land fires due to a prolonged dry season this year. The other five were Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.

Authorities deployed nearly 30,000 personnel to douse the blazes in these provinces.

From January to September, 857,756ha were destroyed across the sprawling archipelago, figures from the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) showed. More than a quarter of that figure was made up of highly combustible peatland.

Nearly 9 per cent of the burnt area, or 75,871ha was located in Riau and and more than 70 per cent of this was made up of peatland.

Peat fires are harder to extinguish as they can continue burning underground for weeks, especially in deep peat areas, producing thick haze.

A total of 919,516 people suffered from respiratory infections between February and September because of the fires and haze. The BNPB said the fires caused at least one death although local media reported at least two people had died.

In Riau alone, the incidents will translate into material losses worth up to 50 trillion rupiah (S$4.84 billion), the Environmental Study Centre at Rial University estimated.

The Riau provincial administration declared a state of emergency in late September to allow for the mobilisation of more resources and the provision of more aid from the central government amid the fires and haze.

Riau, along with West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan, entered the monsoon season in late October, said Mr Fachri Radjab, the head of public meteorology at Indonesia's weather forecast agency BMKG.

"There are no more hot spots in Riau right now," he said, while noting that a number still existed in Central Kalimantan.

In Pekanbaru, the provincial capital of Riau, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) showed air quality on Friday morning settling at less than the 12-mark, which the BMKG categorises as "good".

The monsoon season began in parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan in mid-October, with Indonesia's northern-most provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra being the first ones to receive the rains.

The agency forecast that the season, marked by intense rainfall, will also soon spread to the rest of the archipelago comprising of more than 17,000 islands.

Meanwhile, the top official in the environment and forestry ministry has been outlining ways in which the government is working to minimise the occurrence of fires in the future.

Environment and Forestry Ministry's director general for climate change management Ruandha Agung Sugardiman told The Straits Times said these included building thermal towers for the early detection of blazes and making farmers less dependent on ash from their slash and burn activities as fertiliser.

He said: "We have erected thermal detectors in fire-prone locations that send data every 10 minutes. The first batch was completed in late August this year."

"Each tower can cover 10 sq km. We can detect a fire as early as it starts, and even before it produces smoke. So far, we have erected 15 towers. We will continue to build more," he added.

Dr Ruandha also said that the government was developing facilities for the production of fertiliser from wood vinegar as an alternative to ash for farmers. So far it has built facilities in Jambi, Palembang and West Kalimantan.

The ministry is also collaborating with the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) to find methods to neutralise the acidity of peatland.

Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/indonesias-riau-province-lifts-state-of-emergency-to-fight-forest-and-land-fires-with