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Jakarta urges Riau governor to prioritise fighting fires

Publication Date : 20-02-2014


The return of the haze to Riau has prompted visiting home affairs minister Gamawan Fauzi to call on the newly elected governor of the province to make fighting fires a top priority.

Governor Annas Maamun must take the annual haze problem seriously, he said, even as a shroud engulfed Pekanbaru, the province's capital, on Wednesday, affecting 16 flights in and out of its Sultan Syarif Kasim II airport although the airport remained open.

Some 256 of the 281 hot spots recorded in Sumatra and Riau on Wednesday were in Riau, Pekanbaru meteorological agency official Slamet Riyadi said, citing data from Nasa satellites, but current conditions were unlikely to blow the haze towards Singapore.

"Riau will continue to generally see dry weather going forward, with chances of only light rain this week," he told The Straits Times.

The wind direction at this time of the year is predominantly south - unlike the middle of the year, when it typically blows north and northeast, he noted.

The most hot spots, 94, were recorded in the Bengkalis district in Riau, some 250km north-west of Singapore, Wednesday morning.

Bengkalis borders Dumai, which last year was at the centre of the worst haze in 16 years. Then, farmers slashed and burned forests to clear land, causing air pollution to hit record highs in Singapore and Malaysia.

Despite the rise in hot spots in Riau and another eruption of Mount Sinabung in Sumatra, Singapore's Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) remained in a good range, hovering in the 27 to 39 range, according to the National Environment Agency's website. A PSI of 0 to 50 is considered "good" and "moderate" if it rises to between 51 and 100.

The Meteorological Services Singapore, in an advisory on its website, also said the ash from Sinabung "is likely to be confined over northern Sumatra", and that the possibility of it affecting Singapore remained low.

In Riau, however, state news agency Antara reported that flights were delayed by thick smoke from plantation and forest fires, which reduced visibility to a poor 800m, below the 1,000m required for safe landings.

As a result, a SilkAir flight scheduled to leave Singapore's Changi Airport for Pekanbaru at 8am Singapore time on Wednesday did not take off until 3pm, and did not return to Singapore until 6pm, more than seven hours late.

Sky Aviation's Malacca-Pekanbaru flight, scheduled to arrive by 9am, was also affected, together with other domestic flights.

The haze also affected Wednesday's swearing-in of Riau's new governor, Annas Maamun of the Golkar party.

The turnout was less than expected, as party chairman Aburizal Bakrie cancelled his trip there and several party stalwarts arrived several hours late because of flight delays.

"If there is no haze, I think more people would have turned up," Gamawan, the home affairs minister, said.

Gamawan also said the new governor had to do whatever was necessary to put a halt to the annual haze problem.

He tasked him to set up and organise a fire fighting team in each village.

Fires that spread uncontrollably have already destroyed 3,000 hectare of sago and rubber plantations in the Meranti Islands in Riau.

Total losses incurred in the district were estimated at 60.3 billion rupiah (US$5 million). About 3,000 of the total 5,000ha of plantation destroyed in Aceh were in the Meranti Islands.

Police are investigating the cause of the burning of about 1,200ha on a sago plantation owned by local company PT Nasional Sago Prima.

The company brought the fires there under control by chartering two helicopters to conduct water bombing operations.

To some residents in Pekanbaru, however, the shrouding haze has proved to be a business opportunity to be cashed in on.

A resident on Arifin Ahmad road in Pekanbaru who sells masks for extra income says he sold 20 masks within just one hour Wednesday morning.


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