In addition, nine companies are being investigated for alleged involvement in forest fires."
Jakarta (ANTARA News) - The Indonesian authorities had a fleeting sense of relief that there had been no haze from forest fires until early August this year, thanks to all out efforts to put out the fires by joint teams that included military and police personnel, as well as local inhabitants.

The government claimed that the number of forest fire cases had drastically dropped by 78 percent until August this year, compared to last year.

The significant drop was a result of the hard work of regional heads and security personnel, and was also attributed to the enhanced awareness on the part of plantation companies managers, according to Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo claimed in statement posted on the home affairs ministrys website, around a couple of weeks ago.

The role played by the regional governments, supported by the military, the police, various companies and the community, proved crucial to tackling the problem.

Integrated and early fire detection and extinguishing systems have also been applied up to the rural area level.

Village chiefs in eight areas, where local customs allowed slash and burn farming methods, were able to adopt new ways, thanks to the governments public awareness campaign, the minister said.

In addition to the active role played by the state apparatus and the community, involving timber plantation concession holders (HTI) helped put in place important preventive measures, he noted.

But, unfortunately, despite the maximum efforts, haze has reportedly returned in Riau and West Kalimantan Provinces, since last week.

The districts of Rokan Hilir, Dumai and Pekanbaru in Riau Province, were shrouded by haze. Haze reportedly also spread to neighboring country, Singapore on Aug. 26

Most of the fires came from local farmers who practiced slash and burn method to open farmlands mostly in peatland area, according to reports.

Commander of the Riau Fire Task Force Brig.Gen. Nurendi said in the past two weeks 600 hectares of forest and peat lands caught fires. Most of the lands are owned by farmers, the general said.

NASAs Aqua and Terra satellites detected 65 hotspots of forest fires across Sumatra Island with an accuracy rate at 50 percent, Aug. 27 morning, an increase from 51 hotspots on the previous day.

Nearly 94 percent, or 61 hotspots were concentrated in Riau Province. The rest were in Lampung Province with three hotspots, and one in West Sumatra.

In Riau, the hotspots were found in the districts of Rokan Hilir (36), Siak (13), Bengkalis (nine), Rokan Hulu (two), and Kampar (one).

The Indonesian Air Force based in Pekanbaru, has deployed four helicopters each with a water carrying capacity of four to five thousand liters, and two air tractors having capacity of carrying 3,100 liters of water, to carry out water bombing activities to put out the fires.

Over the past two weeks in Bengkalis, a joint team comprising among others 60 Riau mobile brigade personnel, 25 police officers of Pinggir police sector, 10 military personnel, 10 fire fighters, and 100 local residents, have done their utmost to extinguish the fires.

Forest fires have also been reported West Kalimantan sending thick black smokes to the air including in the provincial city of Pontianak.

The local people were worried that what happened last year would repeat itself again in that region.

The return of haze from forest fires has forced the environmental affairs and forestry ministry to place the country under emergency with regards to anticipating and preventing the impact of smoke emanating from forest and land fires.

"In the morning, afternoon and evening, we kept monitoring the situation and as soon as we detected a fire, we immediately acted to put it out. As a result, the number of fires this year has dropped sharply by 70 to 90 percent," Minister of Environmental Affairs and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya.

Like Minister Kumolo, Nurbaya also claimed that the number of hotspots in Jambi and West Kalimantan has dropped by 90 percent.

However, there has been a hike in the number of hotspots, which doubled, especially in Riau and West Kalimantan, she added.

The joint teams have dropped up to 45 million liters of water to extinguish the fires in Riau and three million liters in South Sumatra. Efforts are still continuing to fight fires including in West Kalimantan and Jambi.

It is predicted that forest and bush fires were more devastating in August and September.

Therefore, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) had earlier instructed that action must not be delayed to put an end to fires when they were still easier to control.

The order was given to prevent a recurrence of the 2015 land and forest fires that had produced smoke chocking hundreds of thousands of Sumatran and Kalimatan inhabitants, and spreading up to Malaysia and Singapore.

The legal enforcement has also been stepped up to prevent fires intentionally set in farmland and plantation areas particularly.

In line with the Law No. 32 Year 2009 on Environmental Protection and Management, forest and plantation arsonists could face up to 15 years in jail and a fine worth Rp15 billion maximally if the fire claims casualties.

The National Polices Criminal Investigation Department (Bareskrim) has detained 85 forest fire individual suspects in Riau this year.

"In addition, nine companies are being investigated for alleged involvement in forest fires," Bareskrim chief Insp. Gen. Ari Dono Sukmanto said on Aug. 25.

In West Kalimantan, the Military District Command (Kodim) 1207/BS Pontianak has detained 38 people, including 26 farmers, suspected of setting fires.

"Of the 38 suspects, 36 are farmers who clear their farm lands by setting fire to them, and one cleared land the same way for housing construction," Commander of Kodim 1207/BS Pontianak, Colonel (Inf) Jacky Ariestanto said.

Another suspect cleared land by using fire for a palm oil plantation, he added.

Earlier, the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) announced six of Indonesian provinces - Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan, are in emergency of forest and bush fires.

BNPB has put into operation eight water bombing helicopters to help extinguish the fires, spokesman of the agency Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said on Aug. 23.

The threat is not over as it is feared that the worst of dry season is yet to come. Normally in September forest fires are more devastating.

In September and October 2015, the hazardous haze emanating from the forest, peatland and plantation fires had led to 10 deaths, left 503 thousand people sick and 43 million people exposed to smoke, in six provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan alone.

Thousand of the two islands inhabitants had suffered from acute respiratory infection, eye and skin irritations, and pneumonia.

Editor: Priyambodo RH
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