As the haze from forest fires across much of Riau pushes the air quality index to dangerous levels, residents are opting to leave the province, while those staying behind are trying to cope amid a dearth of government advisories.
Yolanda Eviyonita, a third-year student at Riau University who is originally from West Sumatra, said on Friday that the rush to leave Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, was so intense that it took her six hours just to get a bus ticket to her hometown of Bukittinggi.
“I waited from 8 a.m. to get a ticket to Bukittinggi. Every trip there was fully booked,” she told the Jakarta Globe. “I finally managed to get a ticket at 2 p.m. and left the city at half past two."
She was among those heeding the advice of Pekanbaru Mayor Firdaus on Thursday for those not from the city to return to their hometowns until the air quality had improved.
The city administration has called on people to use masks when outdoors, but residents say there has been no medical advisory on the dangers of prolonged inhalation of the heavily polluted air.
“There’s been no awareness campaign whatsoever by the city administration about what the haze could do to our health if we keep breathing it in,” said Dolly Enniza, a homemaker. “The officials just tell us to use masks whenever we go outdoors.”
Dolly said the heads of her neighborhood unit and community unit were constantly reminding residents to keep their children indoors to prevent them developing respiratory problems.
For the past week, Dolly said that her children had also been instructed by their schools to stay at home. The air quality index has hit hazardous levels in the past three days.
“The smell of the smoke comes into the house through the ventilation. We don’t even see the sun anymore,” Dolly said.
She added the smoke hurt her nose and eyes, even when she was in her car.
Hamdan Abubakar, who has lived in Pekanbaru for two years, said the local people seemed to have become accustomed to the annual haze problem.
“Before this they never seemed to be bothered by the haze because they have grown accustomed to it for years,” he said on Friday.
“Now people are angry because they can hardly see anything. Today, from around 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., the haze was so thick that visibility dropped to about 50 meters when I was out driving.”
Hamdan said he planning to leave the city as soon as possible.
He blamed logging companies for causing the haze, and suggested that the government bill them for the cost of cloud-seeding efforts to induce rains to combat the forest fires raging across the province.
“They are the ones who have benefited from their permits, so they should pay for weather modification to make artificial rains. The people of Riau are just victims,” Hamdan said.
He commended residents for taking to the streets to hand out face masks for free to motorists at traffic lights.
“Students, volunteers and NGOs and political parties are handing out free masks," he said.