Jakarta. Heavy smog has been reported in the provinces of Riau, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan from suspected slash-and-burn forest clearing, reviving the specter of the diplomatic row sparked by the same problem last year.
Tri Budiarto, the deputy for disaster management at the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), said in Jakarta on Wednesday that those regions had for the past two weeks been experiencing a dry spell, while the rest of the country was hit by torrential rains causing widespread flooding.
“What we’re seeing in Riau, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan is local weather that’s different from the general weather across the country,” he said.
“Elsewhere it’s raining, but there it’s already dry.”
The extended spell of days with no heavy rain is believed to have encouraged residents to begin clearing land for farming, Tri said, with most setting forest fires as the easiest means of doing this.
The BNPB has recorded haze from forest fires in the Riau districts of Bengkalis and Meranti and the town of Dumai, as well as in the Central Kalimantan district of Pontianak and two other districts in Central Kalimantan.
“We’ve notified the local offices of the BNPB in all three provinces, and they’ve begun observing the spread of the fires and the haze,” Tri said.
He said the provincial disaster mitigation agencies, or BPBD, were working with other local authorities to stop the spread of the fires and to be on the alert for fires burning out of control.
Forest fires in Riau last June generated immense amounts of smoke that drifted across the Malacca Strait, shrouding Singapore and parts of Malaysia and Thailand for several days, and sending air pollution indexes there to record highs.
The conditions prompted officials from Singapore and Indonesia to trade diplomatic blows over who was responsible for the thick smog covering much of the region. Singapore criticized Jakarta for failing to curb the annual fires, while Indonesian officials alleged that the plantation companies accused of setting the fires were registered in Singapore and Malaysia.
At the time, several individuals were named suspects by the police for setting some of the fires, but no prosecutions have taken place.
In Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, officials recorded 61 fire hot spots as of Sunday, following a week of heavy smog.
The local office of the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) said the most hot spots, each indicating a major fire, were in Bengkalis district, which had 29, followed by Siak district, Indragiri Hilir (nine), Pelalawan (eight), and Rokan Hilir with three hot spots.
The number of hot spots is expected to increase, with the BMKG saying the rainy season had effectively ended in Riau.
Officials at Pekanbaru’s Sultan Syarif Kasim II Airport said visibility was down as a result of the haze, but not to the point that flights would have to be grounded or redirected to other airports.
However, in Pontianak, the West Kalimantan capital, heavy smog prompted officials at the city’s Supadio Airport to ground seven flights on Wednesday morning because of poor visibility.
Chandra Dista Wiradi, the airport’s general manager, told Tribunnews.com that flights scheduled to take off in early the morning had to be delayed for two hours until the haze lifted somewhat.
He said 700 passengers were affected by the delay.
The local office of the BMKG has recorded 55 hot spots in neighboring Kubu Raya district.