October 4, 2023
JAKARTA – With nearly half of the country’s territory at “high risk of wildfires”, the government on Tuesday said that 2,267 hectares of land was reportedly engulfed in fire, and that the rest of October will see the dry spell persist.
Central Kalimantan, South Sumatra and Jambi provinces are among the most vulnerable areas, officials said following a cabinet meeting with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo about the fires.
Meanwhile, more schools have been closed this week, as the air quality continues to deteriorate to hazardous levels and respiratory infection cases surge.
On Tuesday, the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) updated its map showing the locations currently experiencing abnormal dryness or drought. The map flagged large chunks of South Kalimantan, South Sumatra and nearly all of Java as “extremely dry” and prone to wildfires if not properly handled, amid prolonged and drier dry seasons triggered by the El Niño climate phenomenon.
“According to our predictions, the peak of El Niño that started in September has yet to subside,” BMKG head Dwikorita Karnawati told reporters. “[During this time], wildfires could occur even without human intervention, and extinguishing efforts would be difficult.”
Several ministries and government agencies on Tuesday convened at the Presidential Palace to discuss mitigation measures, later disclosing that, as of Monday, 6,659 hotpots around the country have an 80 percent chance of wildfire.
The past few weeks have seen hundreds of forest fires in Indonesia wreak havoc on daily activities like school and work, as well as an ongoing spat with neighboring countries claiming to have been affected by the disasters.
Sumatra and Kalimantan in particular have been grappling with the disaster, where cases of acute respiratory infections (ARI) have spiked since September.
According to data from the Environment and Forestry Ministry, Kotawaringin Timur regency in Central Kalimantan was the worst affected area, with a recorded Air Quality Index (AQI) of 764 on Tuesday evening.
An index of over 301 is categorized as “hazardous” and may potentially cause serious harm to health.
On Tuesday, Banjarmasin city administration in South Kalimantan ordered virtual learning for all children starting from Wednesday to Sunday. This announcement came a day after a similar announcement in Jambi, where over 760,000 school children have been ordered to stay home until Thursday.
Banjarmasin Education Agency head Nuryadi said that ARI cases have increased in the area, with data indicating over 6,000 newly recorded cases, according to a report from tempo.co.
The environment ministry data, meanwhile, showed that Banjarmasin’s air quality reading stood at 247 on Tuesday evening, categorized as “very unhealthy”.
National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) head Laksana Tri Handoko said that cloud seeding efforts have been coordinated with the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) and BMKG in Jambi, South Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Meanwhile, in East Java’s Ngawi regency, where fire has overtaken the forest-covered Lawu Mountain for five days straight, 1,100 hectares of land have been engulfed and local reports describe extreme heat and strong winds.
“We have deployed 35 helicopters to put out fires [across the country] – of which 13 are for patrol and 22 for water bombing,” BNPB head Suharyanto told reporters. “Those 35 helicopters are all that Indonesia has got.”
Hot and bothered
Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar on Tuesday said that 144 companies received warnings from the ministry after it found wildfires in their concession areas, on top of the closures of 23 companies across West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Sumatra.
Previously, the ministry had warned that it would closely monitor and investigate companies believed to have contributed to the forest fires. If found guilty, the company could be fined up to Rp 10 billion (US$641,000), and management will face up to 10 years in jail.
Siti once again reiterated that the data she had received indicated no evidence of transboundary haze, as opposed to what had been suggested by the Malaysian government last week.
“We are prioritizing South Sumatra and Jambi because of the possibility of the haze crossing over [to other countries], but so far it has not yet happened. Hopefully it will not happen,” Siti said. “So, if Malaysia said that they have no hotspots [and the haze is from Indonesia], satellite data shows that they do have hotspots.”
Malaysia’s air quality was deteriorating, particularly in the western part of Peninsular Malaysia, with 11 areas recording unhealthy air pollution on Tuesday. Its Department of Environment has pinned the blame on Indonesia, saying that a regional meteorological agency had detected no hotspots in Malaysia and almost 250 in Sumatra and Kalimantan as of Monday.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Malaysia was preparing for school closures and cloud seeding if their air quality index reading reached 150 or higher for over 24 hours.
BMKG’s Dwikorita said that the climate is projected to cool down in November because of the monsoon season, although El Niño will not cease until March.
“The rain will likely come in November, and El Niño’s impacts will subside. This dry summer will eventually end, God willing,” she said.