Indonesia fires spark Singapore, Malaysia haze warning

Agence France-Presse

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Fires in Indonesia's Riau province caused the worst outbreak of haze in Southeast Asia for more than a decade in June last year, sparking a heated diplomatic row.

BURNING FORESTS. An aerial photo shows thick smoke rising from burning peat land in Meranti, Riau province, Indonesia, in March 2014. Photo by Azwar/EPA JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia’s disaster agency warned Wednesday, June 25, that haze could return to neighboring Singapore and Malaysia after a huge jump in forest fires in a province at the center of a smog crisis last year.

Fires in Riau province, on western Sumatra island, caused the worst outbreak of haze in Southeast Asia for more than a decade in June last year, affecting daily life for millions and sparking a heated diplomatic row. (Read: Indonesia: Singapore ‘behaving like a child’ over haze)

June is the start of the forest fire season – when slash-and-burn techniques are used to clear land quickly and cheaply, often for palm oil plantations – and disaster officials said the number of blazes in Riau was rising quickly.

A total of 366 “hotspots” – either forest fires or areas likely to soon go up in flames – had been detected in the province on Wednesday, up from 97 the previous day, according to disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

“We must be on alert as the wind is traveling east-northeast. The likelihood of the smog reaching Singapore and Malaysia is getting higher,” Nugroho said.

Experts have said that an expected El Nino weather phenomenon later this year is likely to fan the forest fires as conditions become drier than usual.

El Nino drags precipitation across the Pacific Ocean, leaving countries including Indonesia drier and parts of the Americas wetter.

However the latest outbreak of forest fires was yet to have any serious impact on daily life in Sumatra, and the skies over Singapore were still free of haze.

Authorities said that most of the forest fires last year were deliberately lit to clear land. Slash-and-burn is a traditional farming technique, but environmental groups also accuse big companies of using the method.

According to the Washington-based World Resources Institute, a large number of the fires detected recently have been within the concessions of paper and palm oil companies and their suppliers.

It found 75 hotspots in the concessions of suppliers to Asia Pulp & Paper between June 17 and June 23, and 43 hotspots in zones of suppliers to Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) in the same period, using data from satellite mapping tools.

APRIL said it had agreed to support the fire-fighting effort, lending its water pumps and a company helicopter. APP did not immediately comment. –

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