Indonesia starting firefighting early as dry season begins

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia's top security minister said Friday that authorities have started efforts to fight forest and peatland fires that often pollute Southeast Asia's air as the dry season begins this month.

Luhut Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for politics, legal and security affairs, said the government wants to avoid mistakes made last year when lack of prevention resulted in fires burning out of control. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo had to ask help from other countries to bring the blazes under control.

Forest fires have been an annual problem in Indonesia since the mid-1990s, causing a toxic haze that often drifts into neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Last year's fires, which covered 2.1 million hectares (8,100 square miles), were considered one of the country's worst environmental disasters since 1997, when blazes spread across nearly 10 million hectares.

Most of the fires are started deliberately to clear land for agriculture such as palm oil plantations.

"We will declare a state of emergency once fires are detected, particularly on peat land," Pandjaitan said. "We don't want to repeat mistakes we made last year."

Early declaration of emergencies will speed up the release of funds so authorities can deploy troops, helicopters and firefighting equipment more quickly, he said.

Damming canals so they flood peatland, which burns easily, is also being tried nationwide.

Scientists have predicted that low rainfall due to the El Nino effect could make fires worse this year if the government fails to stop intentional burning, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan on the Indonesian part of Borneo island.

The fires have caused health problems and economic losses on top of environmental damage. Last year in Indonesia there were 21 deaths and the smoky haze blanketing a swath of the country was estimated to have caused respiratory problems for half a million people.

The World Bank has estimated $16 billion in economic costs from the 2015 fires, more than double what was spent on rebuilding Aceh province after the 2004 tsunami.

The Riau provincial government declared a state of emergency on Monday after fires in at least three districts began spreading rapidly because of strong winds. More than 700 police and soldiers have been deployed to extinguish the fires.

Riau province was one of the most severely affected areas last year.