Jakarta. A state of emergency has been declared for Indonesia's troubled Riau province after the forest fires that have raged for nearly a month continued to spread on Thursday, blanketing the region in dangerous levels of choking haze and threatening to reignite tensions over the nation's inability to prevent what has long been an annual concern.
"I've been busy working on how to deal with the fire from morning until late at night," Riau Governor Annas Maamun told the state-run Antara News Agency on Wednesday. "[I've declared] a state of emergency now. We're not messing around."
Indonesia has struggled to stamp-out the practice of slash-and-burn land clearing in Sumatra and Kalimantan in spite of international condemnation over the impact of spreading haze. The fires began to burn earlier this month as the dry season intensified in Riau province, prompting local farmers to set offending forest cover alight in an illegal, but locally acceptable method to prepare land for palm oil cultivation.
Local police have arrested nearly 40 people for setting the fires throughout the province in a show of force. But the impact of a few dozen arrests in a region where, at one time, fires burned on nearly 6,000 hectares of land remains to be seen. The fires showed signs of subsiding earlier this week as the number of hotspots dropped to 145 on Monday. But by Wednesday the blazes had spread again, with 747 hotspots recorded throughout Sumatra, Said Aklul, the head of Riau Disaster and Mitigation Agency, told the Indonesian news portal Liputan6.com.
"Most of them have been detected in Riau," Said told Liputan6.com.
'Twelve days' to clearer skies?
The Riau governor allocated Rp 10 billion ($860,000) in relief funds and appointed Pekanbaru military commander Brig. Gen. Agus Irianto as head of an emergency task force — boasting at the time that the province's fires would be completely extinguished in 12 days time. The state of emergency was expected to last two weeks, during which time local administrations would be expected to kick in as much as Rp 4.6 billion a piece to help fund the province's efforts to stamp out the blaze.
Annas said his administration would keep an eye on the use of the funds, warning local officials of the repercussions of pocketing the money.
"The budget from the regional government should not be used for other purposes," Annas told the Antara News Agency. "It should be used to put out the fire. It should not be corrupted."
The state of emergency, and the funds associated with the status, is the largest government effort to combat forest fires since they began in early February. Last year's haze may have sparked a diplomatic row with Singapore, but the central government, until now, has been reluctant to devote serious resource to fighting this year's blaze.
The central government, after nearly a week of silence, agreed to send much-needed equipment and personnel to help the struggling province. Local disaster crews began to petition the Indonesian government for resources to combat the blaze last week, submitting an official letter on Wednesday after the situation worsened.
Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono announced plans on Wednesday to send military helicopters and personnel to help douse the flames. The central government was initially reticent to dedicate resources for aerial water drops, arguing that most of the fires were burning on peatland — making them resistant to typical firefighting methods. But as meteorologists predict another dry month in Riau, the risk of widespread fires and the return of last year's cross-border haze pushed government officials to reconsider their stance.
"We will rent the equipment because according to the March weather forecast there will be a little rain [in Riau], but it will be dry again in April," Agung said. "This makes it dangerous between April and August. We have to remain on alert."
The National Disaster and Mitigation Agency (BNPB) planned to reach out to the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the National Police for help.
"The letter to the Indonesian Military commander and the National Police chief would be sent soon," BNPB secretary Fatchul Hadi told the Antara News Agency. "[We will] ask them to assign at least two battalions in Riau."
The Indonesian Air Force already committed three aircraft for cloud seeding and aerial water drops, Roesmin Nurjadin Air Base chief Maj. Filpadri said on Thursday. A sizable crew of soldiers was also ready to assist firefighters in affected areas, he added.
"We are ready to assist the government's efforts with the BNPB after Riau announced an emergency status regarding the fire and haze," Filpadri told the local news portal goriau.com.
Tigers in the haze
The residents of Bukit Batu first had to flee their homes as flames spread to more than 2,000 hectares in the badly affected subdistrict. Now the villages, many crowded into evacuation shelters, have a new fear: Sumatran tigers on the prowl.
"This makes us even more scared," Harun, a local security officer, told the Antara News Agency. "Not only is the smoke thick, but tigers have emerged from the forest."
Reports of Sumatran tigers roaming the streets of Bengkalis district sent firefighters packing on Thursday after the flames spread to a tiger habitat at the edge of Bengkalis district. The forested area near the border of Bengkalis and Dumai City has long been home to a small population of Sumatran tigers. But when the fires spread the tigers fled the area, stumbling into nearby villages in search of shelter.
"This morning I received a phone call from one of my members saying that all the members on the ground were reportedly running away after spotting a tiger stalking the area with its cub," M. Jalal, the local fire chief and BNPB chair, said on Thursday.
Two tigers were reported in Temiang Village, in Bukit Batu subdistrict, on Thursday. It was the third tiger sighting in the same village this week, Jalal said. In Barak Aceh, where 125 people have sought refuge in a shelter, the sight of tiger paw prints in the mud inspired panic among those displaced by the haze.
“Once night falls the people at the evacuation shelters are too scared to go outside on their own to pee,” Jalal said.
Disaster officials estimate that 3,629 hectares of Bengkalis had caught fire by Thursday, with the largest concentration of hotspots in Tanjung Leban, Bukit Batu. Firefighters have been working to douse the flames, but the crews plan to pull back until the tiger threat can be placed under control, Jalal said.
"We are aware that the tigers must have been scared by the thick layers of smoke," he said. "That is why it is better for us to avoid them and report the incident to the Riau Natural Resources Conservation Center so they can secure the tigers."
Still measuring the impact
The toll of this year's haze continued to climb on Thursday as haze spread to nearby Padang, West Sumatra. More than 43,000 people have fallen ill in Riau by Wednesday while the air quality declined to "hazardous" levels in some cities, according to reports by the Antara News Agency.
"The air [pollutant] index today is at 500 PSI," Dumai Health Agency head Marjoko told the Antara News Agency. "That means it is very dangerous for one's health."
One week ago the number of sick in Riau totaled some 22,000. By Wednesday that number had doubled to 43,386 people, prompting calls of concern from local health officials.
"Today the number is more than 40,000, this is really worrying," Riau Heath Agency head Zainal Arifin told goriau.com.
Upper-respiratory infections were the most commonly reported symptoms, but reports of eye irritation, asthma attacks and pneumonia persisted. The Riau Health Agency advised residents to remain indoors until the worse of the haze passed.
The province-wide shutdown is taking an economic toll on the region. The Riau Chamber of Trade and Industry reported Rp 10 trillion in losses over the past two months after poor visibility affected transportation and the threat of illness brought productivity to a halt.
"The Rp 10 trillion loss was because of declining business productivity and disrupted transportation of goods and humans due to the haze," chamber of commerce chief Viator Butar Butar told the Antara News Agency.
Flights at Pekanbaru's Sutan Syarif Kasim II International Airport had to be delayed as visibility dropped to 1,000 meters. Flights out of Bandung, Jakarta and Medan were delayed Thursday morning.
"This morning at least three airplanes were delayed because of the haze," the airport duty manager Hasnan told the local newsportal Riauterkini.com.
With the region's drought continuing, the haze is expected to worsen in the coming days. Visibility in Padang already dropped to 700 meters in some places, prompting concern that, without a focused effort from the government, this year's haze may continue to spread beyond Riau.