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Indonesia gears up for threat of forest fires

By Basten Gokkon

JAKARTA, March 14 (Xinhua) -- Drying peatlands and extended drought have prompted the Indonesian government to gear up for a threat of destructive forest fires and chronic haze crisis this year.

"Lesson's learned from last year. We are preparing forces as early as possible," said Indonesian Chief Security Minister Luhut Pandjaitan on Monday in Jakarta, adding that the government has taken a policy for local administrations to immediately declare a state of emergency when they detect alarming number of hotspots.

He said the "very late" decision to declare a state of emergency during last year's disaster was a negative factor in handling the forest fires which resulted in thick smoke blanketing Indonesia and neighboring countries Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.

Several provinces in Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan islands have recently reported increasing number of fires and hotspots. On Sunday evening, NASA's satellite detected 151 hotspots spread across the country, but East Kalimantan and Riau provinces took top spots with 76 and 45, respectively.

Riau and East Kalimantan were among the areas worst-struck last year's environmental catastrophe, labeled by the country's National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) as a "crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions" after 34 people died from breathing the toxic fumes or burn wounds.

The state weather agency (BMKG) on Monday warned that the western and central parts of the archipelago would experience dryer than normal weather as last year's El Nino phenomenon extended through March this year.

Meanwhile, a study from an Indonesian university in Sumatra's Jambi province -- which declared a state of emergency last September due to month-long of fires and choking haze -- showed that the water table position on some peatlands in the region have lowered to between five and seven meters deep.

Fires on dried peat, which is rich in carbon, are much more difficult to extinguish. Last year, the World Bank estimated the inferno that razed 2.6 million hectares of land and forest in Indonesia from June to October cost the Southeast Asia's biggest economy 221 trillion rupiah (around 16.97 billion dollars), a huge blow to the nation's already sluggish economy.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said that she believed the government's prevention and management efforts of forest fires are much better this year than last year.

"I'm not worried (that uncontrolled forest fires would reoccur this year). The most important principal is that when there's a fire, it must be immediately extinguished," she told reporters.

Riau Governor Arsyadjuliandi Rachman echoed the environment minister's sentiment, noting that his administration has increased the number of officers to promptly douse fires in his province.

Indonesia has taken a stronger law enforcement, including revoking operational permits and jail time for offenders of slash-and-burn activity which has been practiced for decades due to its low cost to clear land and forest, and also a clear command-system structure for stronger monitoring and swiftly tackling forest fires.

The government has also established regional task forces in nine provinces to push for prevention and handling forest fire issues within regions, and created in January the country's first-ever agency dedicated for peatland restoration, called Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG).

BRG Head Nazir Foead, however, called on local governments in Riau and other provinces in the northern part of Sumatra to boost its prevention efforts of fires because a longer dry season is estimated to take place there later this year.

"This region has two periods of drought every year. Currently, they're experiencing the short version. Can you imagine what would it be like when the longer period of dry season arrives, if hotspots have already been detected during the short period of drought?" he asked.

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