PEKANBARU, Riau: Long after the visible flames were extinguished, Muhammad Rahman Solihin lingered, vigilantly watching his team of firefighters as they again doused down the ash-strewn ground beneath them.
The 10ha of burnt forest, in the village of Rimbo Panjang in Riau province sat on a peatland instead of solid ground, Mr Solihin explained.
The layers of decomposed plants found in peatland - which can run up to four metres deep - the firefighter continued, could still be smouldering beneath the surface.
“That’s why we wet the surface with a good amount of water to make sure that the underground fires are also put out,” Mr Solihin told CNA on Tuesday (Sep 17). If the sub-surface fires were not well extinguished, they could reignite, he said.
Mr Solihin and his team spent the next two hours dousing the charred soil with two fire hoses running for nearly a kilometre long to the nearest water source.
As the water moved across the landscape, it sent a thick cloud of suffocating and eye-watering dust flying into the air, something which the team had grown accustomed to.
That evening, hours after Mr Solihin’s team had called it a day, the very same spot was again engulfed in flames.
Since June, more than 280,000ha of forests have been burnt across six provinces in Indonesia: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.
Indonesian officials have blamed the blazes on fires set to clear land to make way for palm oil plantations. And this year, the situation has been exacerbated by the prolonged drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.
Officials had also said that some of the most serious fires had happened on peatlands, which became highly combustible when they are drained of water to be converted into farmlands.
This makes the job difficult for the 14,000 firefighters and 9,000 police and military officials deployed to put out the fires which had churned out a toxic haze blanketing some parts of Indonesia and neighbouring Singapore as well as Malaysia.
And the fires are often in remote locations accessible only by foot.
In the village of Sering, in Riau’s Pelalawan regency, it took a team of 60 firefighters, soldiers and police officers six days to extinguish a 4ha forest fire in a dried-up peatland.
During their time fighting the fire, the team had to travel 30 minutes each way through muddy footpaths from their camp site to get to the fire, all while hand-carrying heavy water pumps and hoses.
“We have to camp somewhere safe, far away from the flames. There are also wild animals here. Camping far away is a hassle and it is slowing us down. But I must put the safety of my team first,” police inspector Zulmaheri, who like many Indonesians goes with one name, told CNA.
“Water is also scarce here and we need a lot of water to get to the subterranean blaze.”
FOCUS ON PREVENTION
With the fires forcing schools to close, disrupting air travel and causing thousands to suffer respiratory infections, Indonesian President Joko Widodo instructed officials to focus on prevention.
“Based on our experience, when a fire occurs, especially on peatland, it will be very difficult to handle it. When it is already like this, we need to work hard,” the president said during a visit to Riau province on Tuesday.
“Prevention would be more effective and cost-efficient. If a fire is detected, put it out immediately. The best way is to prevent a fire from starting or at least from spreading.”
The president, popularly known as Jokowi, said the government is deploying 5,600 additional personnel to combat the fire and increasing the number of water-bombing aeroplanes and helicopters to 52, from the original 39.
But with 2,719 hotspots across the country - most are located in remote areas accessible only by off-road vehicles and on foot, getting to the fires in time before they spread has proven to be a challenge.
Riau resident, Mdm Animar said her community had to frantically battle the flames when a recent fire spread less than a hundred metres from the edge of her housing complex in Rimbo Panjang village.
“We had to use buckets to douse the flames and despite our efforts, the fire only temporarily died down before re-igniting,” the 43-year-old mother of three told CNA.
The firefighters only came hours after the blaze began inching closer to the neighbourhood of around 100 families.
Even with help finally arriving, it still took firefighters five days to completely douse down the flames. By the time the fire was extinguished on Tuesday, it had turned 3ha of forest into a charred wasteland.
Mdm Animar said for days, smog from the fire completely blanketed her neighbourhood, taking a toll on people’s health.
Her 10-year-old son recently had to be rushed to a nearby hospital after suffering from respiratory problems.
“During the day, the haze was so thick it turned day into night and at night the sky was glowing bright orange from the flames it turned night into day,” she said.
“The whole neighbourhood was completely blanketed by the haze, you can’t even see more than a few metres ahead of you.”
Mr Solihin, the firefighter, believed that if the government wants to focus on preventing forest fires, officials should engage local communities like Mdm Animar’s and empower them, something the authorities have yet to do.
“Local communities are the first source of information when a fire breaks out, they can reach the affected forest at moment’s notice and they are more than willing to help out because they have vested interests in seeing the fire extinguished,” he said.
“But they lack the knowledge and equipment to put out the fires effectively. And so far, the government has never trained them or provided them with the necessary equipment.”
Mr Widodo told reporters that he was taken aback by how enduring and pervasive the forest fires in Riau have been.
“If you look at how vast the areas (on fire) is, this is organised,” the president said.
“Police and the Ministry for Environmental Affairs and Forestry are investigating (the fires) and we shall see if (the fires) are deliberate and organised by people looking to set up plantations.”
Indonesian National Police chief, General Tito Karnavian said police across the country have recently arrested 218 people accused of setting fire to forests and peatlands.
Police, the general said, are also investigating five companies believed to be employing slash-and-burn practices to clear land.
One scientist recently told CNA that the slash-and-burn method can be 20 times cheaper than clearing land using chainsaws and axes.
Greenpeace Indonesia researcher Rusmadya Maharuddin said another indication that the fires were deliberate is the fact that they occurred on peatlands which are rich in nutrients and carbon.
“But because peatlands are rich in carbon, setting them on fire releases three times more emissions than ordinary forest fires,” he said.
Mr Joko Supriyono, chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association denied that the industry was causing forest fires.
“There is a big gap between the rate of deforestation and the rate of oil palm expansion,” he said during a Tuesday discussion organised by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club.
“We are also affected by the fires. Eleven per cent of the fires affected palm oil concessions. The fires originated from outside of the concessions but spread into our concessions. But we are accused of starting the fire. Why are we to blame?”
Greenpeace researcher Mr Maharuddin is sceptical that police will go after the real masterminds behind the fires, pointing that so far only low level actors on the ground have been arrested.
“The fact that it is happening time and time again is proof that the government is not serious. You need to bring down the intellectual actors, those who benefited the most out of the cleared land. Only then would people think twice about setting forests on fire,” he said.
Mr Maharuddin noted that the palm oil industry employs 16.2 million Indonesians and generates an annual tax revenue of US$1.4 billion. This, he said, could be why the arrests were all for show.
Firefighter Mr Solihin also suspects that the agriculture industry stands to benefit from the forest fires.
“In two or three years this burnt forest will turn into a plantation,” he said. “It makes me angry. We worked so hard to put out the flames but these people burned the forests without even caring that millions would suffer.”
“It’s like we’re fighting a losing battle. But I don’t want to think about it too much. All I can do is just focus on doing my job and save as many lives and as much forest as I can.”