Dry spell stokes blazes in Indonesia’s forest fire capital

More than 1,000 hectares of land in Indonesia’s Riau province have burned so far this year, a sharp increase from the 169 hectares in the first three months of 2022.

A forest fire in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image: CIFOR, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Fires are flaring up in Indonesia’s Riau province, the perennial epicenter of the burning season in Sumatra, as the dry season sets in.

At the end of March, fires had burned nearly 169 hectares (417 acres) of land in Riau, where large swaths of forests and peatlands have been burned to make way for plantations of oil palms and pulpwood.

Since then, however, the scale of fires has intensified, with more than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of land burned — an area three times the size of New York City’s Central Park — according to data from the province’s disaster mitigation agency, or BPBD.

Responding to the intensifying fires, more than half of the 12 districts and cities in Riau have declared an emergency status for forest and land fires. To prevent new fire spots from popping up and current fires from spreading, the BPDP has requested cloud-seeding efforts to induce rainfall, as well as patrol helicopters and water bombing to fight the flames.

The coordinator of the cloud-seeding efforts in Riau, Tukiyat, said there’s been an increase in the number of hotspots in the province since early July.

“That’s why weather modification is now being done again in Riau,” he said as quoted by local media.

Our commitment is clear. Riau has to be free from haze disaster.

Mohammad Iqbal, police chief, Riau 

One of the districts most affected by the fires is Rokan Hilir, where more than 100 hectares (250 acres) are up in flames. Rokan Hilir district deputy head Sulaiman said that fighting fires during the dry season was proving challenging.

“It’s a headache,” he said. “Besides forest, water is also gone.”

Sulaiman said he’s received reports from firefighters that some of the burning is occurring inside plantation concessions.

Another district suffering from the current flare-up is neighbouring Rokan Hulu.

Dedy Nofery Samosir, a military officer stationed there, reported a recent fires burning on 7 hectares (17 acres) of forested hills in Suka Maju village in the district.

“At first, we saw plumes of smoke from the hilly area,” he said as quoted by local media. “After we came [to the scene], the forests [there] were already burning.”

Dedy said there are indications the fires were started deliberately, including the discovery of jerrycans in the burned areas and the fact that the vegetation there appeared to have been cleared before the fires.

Because of the hilly terrain and lack of a nearby water source, firefighters had difficulty extinguishing the flames as there’s no water source nearby, Dedy said. He added there were lots of shrubs, which are easily flammable.

“We can only do firefighting manually since there’s no water source,” he said. “Access to the location is also extreme.”

The province’s meteorological agency, BMKG Pekanbaru, said the dry season in Riau would be a mild one because of La Niña, the weather phenomenon that’s expected to bring increased rainfall in the latter half of the year. The BMKG said the dry season would last through August.

“There will be a transition [from the dry to the rainy season] starting in September until October,” BMKG Pekanbaru data and information coordinator Marzuki said. “Maybe the rainy season will start at the end of October.”

In response to the fires, the Riau police have arrested nine individuals suspected of arson. Most of the fires they’ve been linked to are considered small, at less than 5 hectares (12 acres) in size. But two of the individuals are suspected of being responsible for 107.5 hectares (266 acres) of fires in Indragiri Hilir district.

“Our commitment is clear. Riau has to be free from haze disaster,” said Riau police chief Mohammad Iqbal.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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