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Indonesia gears up for wildfire season

Disaster agency places six provinces on heightened alert to try to limit toxic haze as dry season reaches peak

Indonesia gears up for wildfire season

Firefighters and volunteers ride in a truck as they look for fires to put out amid thick haze on the outskirts of Palangkaraya, a city located in Indonesia's central Kalimantan province, in this file photo. (Photo: AFP)

At least six provinces in Indonesia have been placed on wildfire alert, according to the country’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB).

Agency spokesman Raditya Jati said on Aug. 24 that Riau, South Sumatra, Jambi, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan provinces have all been placed on a state of readiness for varying periods that will end from late September through to late November.

The provinces are located on Sumatra and Kalimantan islands, where forest and land fires — often linked to slash-and-burn practices to clear areas for palm-oil cultivation — typically take place each year during the dry season that usually reaches its peak from August to October.

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The fires produce huge clouds of choking haze that present health hazards not only in areas nearby but also across the region.  

Last year about 942,500 hectares in these provinces were affected by fires. About, 270,000 hectares were peatland, Jati said.

Jati said his agency has called on authorities in each province to increase their preparedness against fires and have crews on standby to implement preventive efforts and to move quickly, both on the ground and in the air, in response to any reports of fires.

“The BNPB has deployed 6,000 personnel to the six provinces. Each province is assisted by 1,000 personnel,” he said, adding that they included members of the military and policemen.

“We have also prepared an air fleet for water bombing and monitoring. These include three helicopters in Jambi, 11 in South Sumatra, eight in Riau, one in West Kalimantan and five in Central Kalimantan,” he said.

However, Dimas Novian Hartono, executive director of the Central Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), told UCA News that the government should focus on peatland restoration instead of extinguishing hotspots.

“The Peatland Restoration Agency [BRG] role is insignificant. This hinders the restoration process on concession land,” he said, adding that such a role should be played by a multi-stakeholder partnership.

Established in January 2016 in response to the country’s worst-ever forest and land fires the previous year, the BRG is tasked with restoring up to 2.67 million hectares of peatland.

In 2015, thick haze blanketed the two islands, damaging the environment and economy and forcing school closures as well as causing widespread acute respiratory infections.

“What the government should do is to embrace villagers who cultivate peatland. This is not about extinguishing hotspots but how villagers should cultivate peatland wisely in accordance with local customs,” Hartono said.

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