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Indonesia issues alerts to snuff out wildfires

Measures being taken at all levels to mitigate risk of fire during upcoming dry season

Indonesia issues alerts to snuff out wildfires

Fire fighters try to put out fires in forest and peatlands surrounding Palangkaraya city in Central Kalimantan in this Oct. 30, 2015 photo. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)

An Indonesian governor declared a state of emergency ahead of the dry season in order to avoid a repeat of 2015 when catastrophic forests fires lit up the islands.    

Arsyadjuliandi Rachman, governor of Riau province, declared a 96-day emergency status after 18 fire hot spots were detected in Riau, West Sumatra and North Sumatra provinces.

"The key is early detection [by all provinces] together. The emergency status at the beginning of the year is part of efforts to anticipate forest and land fires," said Rahman, quoted in The Jakarta Post.

Indonesian authorities have issued warnings to local governments in eight provinces on the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua of potential forest and land fires this year.

"We need to stay alert as of this February, particularly those people living in provinces with equatorial rainfalls and peatlands," Andi Eka Sakya, head of Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, told ucanews.com on Feb. 2.

"A region with equatorial rainfalls means it has two dry seasons, which alter quickly. If peatlands are burnt, it will be difficult to extinguish the fires," he said.

Divine Word Father Frans Sani Lake, coordinator of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Kalimantan, said that climate change is making the situation even more unpredictable.

"We need to be alert to potential fires as we cannot predict how the climate will change," he told ucanews.com.

Four people died and over 18,000 others suffered from acute respiratory infections when thick haze swallowed swathes of Indonesia in 2015 due to fires that consumed about 122,000 hectares of peatlands.

Peatlands are naturally protected from fire by a high water table, but drought can cause the peat to burn and oxidize. Rampant slash-and-burn practices to expand palm and pulp plantations also increases the risk.

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Rico Kurniawan, an official from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, urged the government to accelerate peatland restoration and stop issuing new plantation licenses.

"Millions of people living in Sumatra and Kalimantan were affected by the haze. It is because nearly 80 percent of hot spots were on peatlands," he said.

The government established the Peatland Restoration Agency in January 2016, with targets to restore approximately two million hectares in five years.

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