Fewer forest fires, hot spots likely this year due to wetter weather, Covid-19 curbs: Indonesia’s disaster management chief

JAKARTA – Indonesia will likely have fewer land and forest fires this year because the dry season will be wetter in most parts of the country compared with last year, the head of Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) said on Thursday (Aug 13).

Lieutenant-General Doni Monardo also said the movement restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 would reduce the number of fires as well.

Already, the country has detected far fewer hot spots and areas burnt than a year ago, he added.

Pointing to data from the Terra and Aqua satellites of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), Lt-Gen Doni noted that the number of hot spots with high confidence level fell to 892 in the first half of this year, a 40.25 per cent decline from the previous year.

The high confidence level correlates with the high probability of fire incidents, and when it is low, it is less likely for fire incidents to occur in an area.

He also said the areas burnt in the first five months of this year totalled 38,772ha, adding that they were smaller than last year’s.

Speaking during a webinar on the threat of forest fires amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Lt-Gen Doni said: “We are more optimistic compared with last year. First, it’s because of the weather.

“Second, many people stay at home and, hopefully, this will help prevent fires in a number of regions.”

Last year, the country with more than 17,000 islands struggled with extensive forest fires owing to prolonged dry season, and this caused a blanket of haze to cover parts of the region.

Many had feared last year’s fires would repeat its worst crisis in 2015, when fires burned 2.61 million ha and caused US$16.1 billion (S$22.1 billion) in economic losses.

But the damage was less severe last year, with 1.65 million ha devastated, resulting in US$5.2 billion in losses.

Lt-Gen Doni said his agency will provide greater support this year to communities that take part in fire prevention efforts. It has also prepared 14 helicopters for water bombing.

To prevent a repeat of last year’s fires, the authorities began cloud-seeding operations in some parts of the country in April.

Six areas vulnerable to fires – Riau, North Sumatra, Jambi, South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan – have allocated more resources to prevent and mitigate fires. Riau, for instance, has launched a new information system about fire-related indicators, such as hotspots and wind direction.

The head of climate variability analysis at Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), Mr Indra Gustari, told The Straits Times that the dry season in Indonesia this year is forecast to be wetter, with several regions set to experience rainfall that is higher than the average of the past 30 years.

“Some won’t even have a dry season,” said Mr Indra, referring to the eastern part of North Sumatra and northern part of South Sumatra.

He noted that around 80 per cent of Indonesia’s 342 climatic zones have entered the dry season, and 70 per cent of them, including the eastern part of North Sumatra and northern part of South Sumatra, have had no rain for three weeks.

Speaking at the webinar, Mr Teguh Surya, executive director of local environmental group Madani Berkelanjutan Foundation, said four provinces – Riau, Riau Islands, North Sumatra and East Kalimantan – are most likely to see fires this year, based on the analysis of hot spot density.

“If no serious attention is paid to the indicators of the regions’ potential to have fires, we worry about losing the chance to prevent the spread of fires this year, especially amid the threat of the pandemic, he added.

In West Kalimantan, the areas burned totalled only 646ha by July 25, but the size already grew to some 2,500ha by Aug 10, Mr Teguh said.

He noted the pandemic posed some challenges to prevention and mitigation of fires, such as budget and human resources, while burning might increase as people lose their jobs and livelihoods owing to the social restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SII) Haze Outlook Report released in late June forecast a moderate risk of a severe transboundary haze incident this year.

Still concerns remain.

One reason is that resources to prevent and mitigate the fires would be largely lost to the government’s efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s impact.

Another reason is pertaining to medium-sized companies, whose commitment to sustainability practices remains questionable, said SIIA’s chairman, Associate Professor Simon Tay.