By Zamzami Arlinus

In the lead up to the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, precautions have been taken to prevent the threat of forest fires. However, hot spots continue to emerge. Despite a strong statement by President Joko Widodo, fires continue burning in a number of peatlands, especially in Riau.

About the author: Zamzami is a Pantau Gambut contributor from Riau.

Since mid July, Riau's peatlands have started to burn again, particularly in areas that are prone to burning, such as Dumai and Rokan Hilir. Peatland fires in Indonesia, especially in Riau, have now become predictable events. 

As usual, the narrative that appears in the media is also predictable: the story of a fire burning for days on end in one location, the difficulty of extinguishing it due to the area’s remoteness, and the minimal equipment available.

The government claims to have tried to extinguish the fire, and that the fire was no longer visible from the land surface. The next morning, however, smoke rose from the peatlands where the fire had supposedly been extinguished. The fire continues to spread.

“My latest report is 12 hectares. Yesterday it was 10 hectares, and it has already gone up. This is a nature park, Taman Wisata Alam conservation area. Currently, the fire is at 12 hectares and is expected to grow steadily. Actually, yesterday 1.5 acres of the burning area had died down, and I predict that they won’t burn again. This is how fires work; they burn in spurts. When I leave later tonight, it will start burning again,” Medang Kampai Police Chief AKP Ade Rukmayadi told Green Radio last week. 

This issue also drew the Head of the Peat Restoration Agency, Nazir Foead, to visit the fire location last week. Foead’s trip may have been sparked by reports of peatland fires raging across Riau. On 17 July, it was reported that there were 539 fire hot spots in six Indonesian provinces. Riau had 208 hot spots, the highest of any single province. The second highest was West Kalimantan with 155 hot spots, followed by Central Kalimantan with 66 hot spots, and South Kalimantan with 53 hot spots. South Sumatra has 24 hot spots, Jambi 31, and Papua only two.

According to observation in Riau, there are 30 separate peatland fires in Rohil, with as many as 13 hot spots. Ten spots are in Dumai, and the remaining seven are in Bengkalis. This is based on monitoring by a LAPAN application with a 70% confidence level from 17–19 July 2018.

Meanwhile, the international extravaganza of the Asian Games in Palembang and Jakarta will commence in the next few weeks. A number of parties are worried about forest fires interfering with the event dubbed "Energy of Asia".

By the end of last week (22 July), rainfall was reported in a number of areas in Riau, prompting the Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics in Pekanbaru to monitor the areas. On the morning of 23 July 2018, no hot spots were detected. However, hot spots reappeared in reports later that afternoon. Two hot spots were observed in the Pelalawan and Rokan Hilir districts with a confidence level of 50%.

The emergence of these hot spots has made all parties vigilant. In Jakarta, Indonesian Armed Forces Commander Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto said coordination with all parties is crucial. Tjahjanto plans to survey locations prone to peatland fires on 3–4 August 2018.

Regarding team preparedness, the regional Agency for Disaster Management in Riau has been notified in advance and Riau has six helicopters on standby.

“We have five helicopters from the National Agency for Disaster Management and one from the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry. We’re ready to handle emergency alerts for forest and land fires in Riau,” Head of the Riau Agency for Disaster Management Edward Sanger told Tribun on the second week of July.

However, these claims of preparedness seem to ignore the ongoing burning of peatlands. Though President Jokowi asserted on 6 February 2018 that he will remove the police chief and the commander if there are still forest and land fires, this statement seems to have no real impact on the ground as peatlands continue to burn, especially in Riau.

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