Sunday, 25 May 2008

Major forest fires in sight as more hotspots detected

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Major forest fires in sight as more hotspots detected

Adianto P. Simamora , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta Sun, 05/25/2008 12:01 PM Headlines

Indonesia has been placed on alert for widespread forest fires, with satellite images showing a rise in the number of hotspots in the past three weeks.

The U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration satellite has detected about 555 hotspots in Riau alone in the past 32 days, Dedi Hariri, the forest fire monitoring officer at the World Wildlife Fund Indonesia, said Saturday.

A hotspot is a fire covering at least one hectare.
"The number of hotspots has grown really quickly because of the long-standing problem of massive slash-and-burn practices by farmers, timber firms and plantation companies," Dedi told The Jakarta Post.

As of Saturday, the number of hotspots in West Kalimantan had reached 339, while the numbers detected in West Sumatra and North Sumatra had risen to 200 and 67, respectively.

Riau Governor Rusli Zaenal has called for the implementation of measures to prepare for large-scale forest fires, particularly on the province's 4.04 million hectares of peatland, which is most prone to the annual disaster.
He also asked the police to arrest "anyone caught in the act of playing with fire".

The governor said forest fire monitoring and prevention officers, right down to the district level, should be ready for the fires.

An official with the North Sumatra Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMG), Firman, said haze from forest fires in Riau and North Sumatra had reduced visibility, although it had not disrupted flights.

"The haze came from Riau and Jambi, where forest fires are raging. The number of hotspots fell this week, but North Sumatra remains susceptible to haze," he said.

Forest fires in West Kalimantan reduced visibility in the provincial capital of Pontianak early this week. Flights were suspended in Supadio airport for five hours for safety reasons as visibility dropped to 800 meters.

"Rain rarely falls in the dry season, so the situation could get worse," head of provincial environment control Tri Budiarto said.

BMG has predicted this year's dry season will be drier than last year's.
Dedi urged the government to respond quickly to the satellite findings and prioritize preventive measures.

"Anticipation is crucial in preventing a recurrence of the massive 2006 forest fires," he said, recalling the disaster that drew strong protests from Malaysia and Singapore.

With about 145,000 hotspots detected, the forest fires in 2006 were the country's second worst after the 1997 disaster.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologized to neighboring countries for the 2006 fires.

The government promised during the UN climate change conference last December to halve the number of hotspots.

Malaysia has committed to help Indonesian farmers practice safer farming methods to help curb forest fires.

The Malaysian environment minister, Douglas Unggah Embas, said the two countries would sign a memorandum of understanding by June to enable Malaysian experts to assist farmers in fire-prone Riau.

"Among the programs lined up after the MOU is signed are capacity building to help them achieve their zero-burning target, rehabilitation of burned peatland and development of an early haze warning system," the minister was quoted as saying by AFP.

Indonesia is currently striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from forest fires, to help tackle climate change.

The WWF said about 10 million hectares of forest were burned in the 1997 forest fires, releasing about 2.57 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making Indonesia the world's third-largest emitter after the United States and China.

Nurni Sulaiman, Apriadi Gunawan and Rizal Harahap contributed to this article from Pontianak, Medan and Pekanbaru, respectively.