The damage was extensive. The fires ravaged and destroyed hundreds of thousands hectares of tropical forests and farmlands. No less devastating was the haze of smoke, blanketing a big part of the country.
Thick smoke disrupted flight schedules and forced people to breathe smoky air hazardous to health. The inconvenience caused by the smoke lasted for three months not only in the country but across the border as far as Singapore and Malaysia.
South Sumatra was the hardest hit among the five provinces by the forest fires in 2015. Hot spots were recorded in 27,000 locations with more than 600,000 hectares of its tropical forest leveled to the ground.
The province had 3.5 million hectares of forests and 1.4 million hectares of peat lands, which easily catch fires in dry season.
Many people whose farmlands were destroyed by fires could only hope for a miracle praying that the drought would be soon over to be replaced by rainy season.
Lack of coordination among the government institutions was also to blame for the extensive destruction. Government institutions tended to blame each other.
"Although at that time I said that all institutions had the responsibility for preserving the environment, and therefore, all should share the blame," South Sumatra Governor Alex Noerdin said on the sidelines of the 30th session of "The Man and Biosphere International Coordinating Council (MAB-ICC) UNESCO" held here last month.
Hoping not to repeat committing the same blunder, South Sumatra has worked out a concept to protect the environment involving all concerned. Dry season comes every year, therefore, forest fires would never cease as a threat to the environment.
Preparedness against forest fires is especially crucial this year in South Sumatra as Palembang, the capital city, will host the 18th Asian Games to start on August 18 until September 2 participated in by 45 countries.
The government, forest-based and plantation companies, social community institution and the people need to cooperate in the fight against forest and bush fires.
South Sumatra hopes to implement a sustainable economic development in exploiting its natural resources in a program it calls "Green Growth South Sumatra Development", under its governor.
"I went to 11 countries and attended international meetings to seek and collect fund aid. A number of donor countries contributed millions of US dollars in aid to finance efforts to recover the forests and mitigation of the damage caused by the fires in South Sumatra," the governor said.
The program was needed with the role of the province as a host of the 18th Asian Games. Palembang was named to be a co-host of Asian Games in 2014.
The capability of South Sumatra provincial administration in coping with the fire disaster is tested for the reputation of the country as the host of Asia`s largest sport event. It is more crucial as a number of games will be held in open places like triathlon, rowing, tennis and footballs.
The government, therefore, have taken effective and efficient preparations to reduce the risk of fires. The result has been encouraging in the past three years although wet dry season during that period also contributed to reducing hot spots in the region.
In 2016, there were much fewer fires. Hot spots were recorded only in 973 locations with 978 forests damaged. In 2017, the number of hot spots rose to 1,212 locations destroying 9,286 hectares of forests.
The declines were attributable to improvement in mitigation movement, early detection, and quick handling by the authorities.
The private sector also contributed significantly to reducing fire disaster. Private companies like APP Sinar Mas repaired and built facilities and infrastructure using high technology in detecting hot spots to allow immediate handling.
Sinar Mas, which has pulp and paper factory in the region, has Command Center in Jakarta connected with situation rooms located in various areas in its forest concessions in Sumatra. The situation rooms take record and present data of hot spots and weather condition in real time.
General Manager of Fire Management of Sinar Mas Sujica Lusaka said from the situation rooms extremely dry areas could be detected.
Preparations, therefore, could be made to take necessary steps such as by wetting the spots with fire extinguisher called sambonesia. If the location could not be reached by land aircraft has to be used for water bombing.
"We produce the sambonesia ourselves to spray water to wet peat land. Currently we have 2,000 units of sambonesia," Sujica said.
The regulation requiring plantations companies to take care of fires in the range of 5 kilometers outside of their lands also contributes to controlling fires. The regulation also requires plantation companies to help prevent villagers around their lands to use fires to open farm lands.
The government seeing the potential disaster, has taken a number of preventive steps to forestall the devastating impact of forest fires. Forest fire Task Forces were formed on land an in the air.
Commander of the land Task Force of South Sumatra, Col. Iman Budiman in Palembang, said the military has built camps and tents in a number of villages considered vulnerable to forest and bush fires. The Task Force has team on patrol round the clock.
The government does not want to take risk. Control is tight.
There are 55 villages in two district areas - Ogan Komering Ilir and Ogan Ilir - given special priority in military patrol by the land Task Force as they are close to Palembang. It is feared that fires in the two district areas would most likely send smokes to blanket the city disrupting the games.
"Starting June, our soldiers have been posted and stayed in the villages to closely watch the farmers 24 hours every day to ensure that the villagers are not careless as to use fire to clear their farm land," Iman said.
The Land Task Force cooperate closely with the air Task Force. The two forces exchange information of early detection of any hot spot.
So far information from land Task Force serves as the main reference for air Task Force to launch water bombing as information from satellite often comes too late.
"Certainly we could not prevent the villagers from lighting their matches, but with the land Task Force members available in location, at least we could move faster to put out fires if any," Iman said.
He pointed to the bush fire in the district of Ogan Komering Ilir that broke out on Saturday (4/8) at Pulu Beruang, Tulung Selapan, around 10.40 a.m. local time.
All available forces were sent to the location immediately after information was received about the fire. Information could come from the land Task force or from Air Task Force.
The result is quite encouraging. The fires could be controlled immediately and the fires had not spread over more than 10 hectares of the bush lands.
The result could have been much different. The fires could have become out of control ravaging the entire bush lands without the Task Force there to prevent it from spreading.
In early June 2018, fires destroyed 200 hectares of farm lands in the district and could be put out after four days.
It would not be easy to keep South Sumatra from forest or bush fires. The reason is the province has wide peat lands about 1.4 million hectares . Peat land easily catch fires. In addition, the villagers do not think of the danger of using fire to clear farm lands. They found it easier to use fire to open new farm lands.
The big fire in 2015 left problem of long unsettled dispute over land ownership. There are also wide no man`s lands that it is a problem to ask for any one for responsibility in the event of fire.
A special staff of the Climate Change at the South Sumatra regional administration Najib Asmani said a big part of around 700 hectares of farmlands ravaged by the 2015 fores fires are still no man`s lands or are still in dispute mainly between corporations or farmers.
"This is still a problem until now," Najib said, adding the South Sumatra provincial administration has reported the condition to the Environment and Forestry Ministry to help solve the problem.
However, the priority now for the government is to ensure that Asian Games must be entirely safe from any trouble caused by forest and bush land fires.
The government is now more concerned with seeing the big sport event ends in success as the country`s reputation is at stake. A technology of weather modification technology (WMT) by spraying salt over the clouds is expected to help cope with possible problem caused by fores fires.
The WMT is believed to still be effective in August because of the cyclone in the Philippines creating clouds over South Sumatra.
Commander of Palembang Air Force Base, Col. HR Sutrisno said everyday 4 tons of salt were sprayed in the sky using two units of aircraft.
In addition, in order to ensure that the air is clean over Palembang during the Games, water bombing is intensive to put out hot spots detected by satellite to prevent the fires from growing out of control.
The Indonesia`s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) has made ready 10 units of aircraft including one unit for air patrol. Pulp and paper maker APP Sinar Mas also has three units of Super Puma helicopters each with a capacity of carrying 4,000 liters of water ready to contribute to putting out hot spots with water bombing.
The government also has threatened to use tougher legal action against one responsible for forest and bush fires.
Police Chief General Tito Karnavian has passed order to take legal action against those violating the regulation not to use fires to open farm lands.
"I have passed order not to tolerate setting fire on forests. Forest and bush fires are not a problem concerning South Sumatra alone but the whole nation," the police chief said.
Preparations that have taken 3.5 years for the success of the big event to be held in Jakarta and Palembang should not be spoiled by irresponsible people or carelessness of a single man.
Observers said focus on threat of forest fires, must not divert attention from terrorist threat.
Editing by Sri Haryati