Nearly 50,000 people in Riau province have been suffering from upper respiratory infections due to the worsening forest fires in Sumatra, a official said on Tuesday.“The thickening haze blanketing Riau is worsening the air quality. The air-pollution index has reached more than 300, which is already considered hazardous and could affect the public’s health,” spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, said.
He said more than 41,000 people have been suffering from upper respiratory infections, while many others are suffering from pneumonia.
“This data is obtained from the number of people seeking treatment at the community health centers [Puskesmas] and of course there are many others who prefer not to come to health facilities,” Sutopo said.
The BNPB has deployed two Russian helicopters that can carry up to 4,000 liters of water and six smaller helicopters with a capacity of 500 liters to work continuously to douse the flames.
“The police have also arrested some people. There have been 27 cases [of fires] reported and 28 people have been named suspects for the forest fires,” Sutopo said, without providing further detail of who had been arrested and what they had been charged with.
The haze has also affected other parts of Indonesia.
In Tarakan, East Kalimantan, nearly 2,000 kilometers east of Riau, people have been urged to wear face masks at all times because of thick haze that has blanketed three subdistricts.
Hariyanto, head of Tarakan’s Disaster and Mitigation Agency (BPBD), said since Sunday there had been six hotspots that could not be controlled because of a lack of personnel and the large area effected.
“Even if we deployed all our personnel, we would not be able to put out the fires completely because the size of the burning land is so large; we can only hope it will rain tonight while we try our best to extinguish the fires,” he said.
Hariyanto said his team still could not figure out the cause of the fires but locals had reported the fires started because of the hot temperatures.
“We haven’t figured out where the fires have originated, because for now, our priority is putting them out so it won’t spread to nearby residential areas,” he said.
“We hope people who wish to develop new land do not just slash and burn, because it will be catastrophically dangerous in a dry season like this, especially when the wind blows strongly,” he said.
The local health office recommended that people wear face masks to guard against respiratory diseases.
Indonesian Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan previously said last year’s forest fires, which were almost all the result of actions to clear forest areas for planting, eased in July-August, with the arrival of the rainy season.
However, climate change seems to have brought the burning season forward this year, the minister said, with fires and haze in Riau reappearing in February, while other parts of the nation were still hunkered down under heavy rain that in some cases have caused flood disasters.
Riau is home to major palm oil and pulp and paper producers, many belonging to or supplying companies that are household names both in Indonesia and overseas.
Despite forestry laws prohibiting land-clearance by fire, and despite companies operating in those areas pledging zero-burning policies, the fires return every year, because it is such a cheap and fast method to pave the way for new paper-pulp and palm oil plantations.
Local farmers, who have been using slash-and-burn methods for generations, are suspected of lighting some fires to clear small family farming areas.
But they are also suspected of accepting payment to start fires on some company plantations, providing those firms with a screen of plausible deniability in case of prosecution.
Thanks to near-real time data provided by agencies such as NASA, which has satellites taking photos regularly, it is possible to see where the fires are lit, and to determine who stands to benefit from that.