A burned stretch of forest land in Riau province, seen on Saturday. (Antara Photo/F.B. Anggoro)

Wildfire Destroys Over 35 Hectares of Land in Riau


MARCH 01, 2015

[Updated at 8:57 p.m. to add more official comment and background]

Jakarta. A wildfire has destroyed over 35 hectares of land in the Bangko and Tanah Putih subdistricts of Riau’s Rokan Hilir district.

“The wildfire has been raging since yesterday in Bangko and Tanah Putih subdistricts,” Riau Police spokesman Adj. Sr. Comr. Guntur Aryo Tejo said on Sunday.

Officers from the Riau Police on Saturday were working with firefighters and locals to extinguish the fire and were trying to find out what caused the fires.

Fires such the one raging in Riau are commonly found to have been ignited on purpose as part of slash-and-burn agricultural practices.

“We have questioned the land owners and we are still conducting our investigation,” Guntur said.

Another Riau wildfire destroyed at least 40 hectares of land in January.

The Riau Police have so far named 11 people suspects in cases of illegal forest clearing in the past two months.

The firefighting unit head of the Bengkalis Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD), Suiswantoro, told Tempo.co that the fires was likely set off intentionally.

“In the area, we saw attempts at land clearance and trees that had been cut down,” Suiswantoro said. “But it is hard to determine who started the fire before further investigation.”

While the disaster management agency has succeeded in extinguishing the fire in many areas, it is still struggling to stamp out the fire in the local peatlands.

“We also have to grapple with a dearth of water in some locations where the fire is raging,” Suiswantoro said.

The Indonesian office of international environmental group Greenpeace says the number of fire incidents over the past few years have continued to increase in Riau, a Sumatran province at the center of major forest and land fire incidents in Indonesia in recent years.

Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Muhammad Teguh Surya says a total of 6,644 fire hot spots were detected across Riau in 2011, and this figure has continued to rise: 8,107 hot spots in 2012 and 15,112 hot spots in 2013.

The Riau administration declared a state of emergency in the province in in February last year after it failed to tackle fires and haze that spread to surrounding provinces, forcing airports to shut down and disrupting flights, as well as threatening the health of residents.

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency, or BNPB, said during the emergency period that ran from Feb. 26 to April 4 that potential economic losses from the fires and haze were estimated at Rp 20 trillion ($1.61 billion). Nearly 22,000 hectares of land were torched, including 2,400 hectares located in biosphere reserves.

Nearly six million people were exposed to the haze, and 58,000 people suffered respiratory problems as a result.

Riau was forced to declare another state of emergency in July. Although local firefighters, with the help of the military and police, eventually managed to extinguish most of the fires, they kept flaring up throughout the year