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Sumatra firefighters on alert as burning heralds start of Riau dry season

Mongabay - March 6, 2024

Suryadi, Pekanbaru, Indonesia – Emergency workers and community firefighters battled isolated fires in Sumatra's Riau province in late February as the onset of the region's first dry season of 2024 sparked wildfires in some peatland areas.

"The water source is pretty far away and the surrounding area is very dry," said Joko Susilo, the head of the emergency and logistics section at the disaster management agency in Dumai, a port city on the Malacca Strait.

State and community firefighters spent much of February attending to fires smoldering in areas of peatland, which are carbon-dense wetlands formed by compaction of biomass over thousands of years. Riau province has 3.8 million hectares (9.4 million acres) of peatland, more than any other province in Indonesia.

Riau experiences two distinct dry seasons a year: in addition to the same dry season that occurs across much of the rest of Indonesia, typically peaking around August, the province also sees another dry spell around February-March, owing to the shift to a northeasterly monsoon wind pattern.

Southern districts of Riau such as Kampar usually record sufficient rainfall during February, but the northern plains and wetlands, home to the province's oil palm and acacia plantations, typically endure around six weeks of water deficit. Rainfall in northern Riau then accelerates in April and May, before Indonesia's principal dry season saps the water table and elevates fire risk from June through October.

In the week ending March 2, Pantau Gambut, a Jakarta-based NGO working on peatland protection, said there were 83 hotspots burning in peatlands across Indonesia, 34 of them in Riau.

The provincial disaster management agency said much of its focus in February was concentrated in Dumai. By Feb. 24, around 11 hectares (27 acres) had been burned by wildfires, a relatively small area of land.

Jim Gafur, head of the agency's emergency unit, said the fires were concentrated in the villages of Tanjung Palas and Gurun Panjang in Dumai. The Dumai city government declared a state of emergency in February as the fires emerged in outlying rural areas.

Firefighters reported difficulties accessing water sources near some fires, particularly in Gurun Panjang, although sufficient water was obtained in other reservoirs where water levels remained high following the rainy season in the new year.

"We need help extinguishing the fires with [aerial] water bombing," said Joko, the Dumai city disaster lead.

Joko also called on farmers and members of the public to refrain from clearing land by setting vegetation on fire. He noted that the fire in Gurun Panjang had started in an oil palm concession before spreading to a community's plantation, but did not confirm the identity of the company.

Responders have also attended to hotspots further inland in Riau's Rokan Hilir district. Devita Trimaily, an official in the Rokan Hilir disaster management agency, said local authorities had not declared an emergency status because the fires burning there were considered small and contained to three subdistricts.

"If the wildfires continue to spread from these three subdistricts, then steps will be taken to establish an emergency alert status," Devita told Mongabay Indonesia on Feb. 29.

Looking ahead

An El Nino system occurs when warmer sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean change weather patterns around the world. The impact of El Nino in Indonesia includes heightened risks of wildfires exacerbated by reduced rainfall and increased temperatures.

The effect is most dangerous in peatland areas like Riau province and southern Borneo, where out-of-control wildfires cause environmental destruction, excess deaths and economic losses in the billions of dollars.

In 2023, fires burned across almost 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of land and forest, according to Indonesia's Ministry of Environment and Forestry. This represents a fivefold increase from 2022, before the emergence of El Nino, but is smaller than the area burned during Indonesia's previous wildfire crises in 2019 and 2015.

In its most recent update, on Feb. 8, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center noted that the probability of El Nino conditions transitioning to neutral in the April-June quarter was 79%. The federal agency, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service, assessed a 55% chance of a La Nina system emerging between June and August. That would imply reduced risks of major burns in the second half of this year in much of Southeast Asia.

Bibin Sulianto, data lead for the weather monitoring station at the main airport in Pekanbaru, the Riau capital, said El Nino remained at a moderate level, but that conditions on the ground may change in the coming months.

However, Bibin added that rainfall distribution in the province can be erratic, and "that's why we remain alert."

"We'll see and update the trend later in March," Bibin, from Indonesia's meteorology agency, the BMKG, told Mongabay on Feb. 29. "Will it be La Nina or will it return to El Nino?"

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/03/sumatra-firefighters-on-alert-as-burning-heralds-start-of-riau-dry-season