At ground zero, Indonesians cry foul over inadequate response to fight forest fires

At ground zero, Indonesians cry foul over inadequate response to fight forest fires

Firefighter observes burned forest in Riau
A firefighter observes a recently burned forest in Riau, Indonesia. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

PEKANBARU, Riau: Mdm Sri Ruayati posted a note on at the front door of her tiny home sitting at the end of a small dirt road in the village of Rimbo Panjang.

Written in black and red marker pen, the note read: “We are not blaming anyone. But please carry out the duties you are sworn to do.”

Since Sunday (Sep 15), fire has been raging just 50 metres from her home, in a peatland covered in thick shrubs and tall trees. The flames have been slowly inching toward her house.

An orange glow was clearly visible above the treeline beyond her backyard fence as thick black smoke billowed tens of metres up into the air.

Woman watches forest fire in Riau
Mdm Sri Ruayati standing helplessly outside her house as a forest fire rages just meters away in Rimbo Panjang village, Riau, Indonesia. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

In a panic, Mdm Ruayati and her three teenage daughters frantically summoned everyone around them, including the people relaxing at a small coffee shop at the side of a busy road.

People came one by one, watching the flames and documenting the scene on their phones.

“I asked my neighbours, ‘who here called the fire brigade?’ Everyone fell silent,” she recounted to CNA, shaking her head in disbelief.

“I tried calling (the fire brigade) but was only told to be patient. Help never came. I immediately ran to the main road, stopping every police car, every government agency vehicle to get their attention.”

Firefighters finally came the following morning, staying for five to six hours before heading off elsewhere, thinking that they had completely extinguished the blaze.

But peatland fire is very difficult to extinguish and flames could still be smouldering beneath the surface, inside the layers of decomposed plants which can run up to four metres deep.

“At night the fire started again,” she said. “So I went back on the phone and back on the main road, stopping cars to get people’s attention.”

READ: Firefighters on frontline of Indonesia’s peatland blaze face uphill battle 

Mdm Ruayati has been repeating her routine every day since the fire started.

“I barely get any sleep. All I think about is how to get government officials to come and do their job. With fire so close to my house, I should have been evacuated. The government should have told me it is not safe for me to stay here and found me a shelter,” she said in a frustrated tone.

When CNA visited Mdm Ruayati on Tuesday evening, the fire near her house was still raging.

Forest fire in Riau at night
Forest fire has been raging for at least three days behind Mdm Sri Ruayati's home in Rimbo Panjang village, Riau, Indonesia. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

She said a government official recently came over to her house demanding that she remove the note on the front door.

“He said that my note is hurtful. He told me that I am ungrateful, that the government is doing its best,” she said.

She eventually agreed to take down the note, only to put it up again after the official left. “The fire near my home is still raging. I wonder what the official has to say about that.”

Perceived slow response by firemen, lack of healthcare access and a belief that the authorities have not learnt from past episodes of haze are just some of the issues that have frustrated those on the ground.

LACK OF MANPOWER

Jokowi visiting forest fire in Riau
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (left) and his ministers inspecting a forest engulfed by fire in Kampar regency, Riau, Indonesia, on Sep 17, 2019. (Photo: Indonesian Presidential Palace)

During a visit to Riau province this week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo instructed officials to put out the flames as soon as a forest fire is detected.

“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, known popularly as Jokowi, told reporters.

But that was not what happened in the case of Mdm Ruayati, whose house is located just one hour drive from Riau’s bustling capital city, Pekanbaru.

One of the reasons for the slow response might be the lack of manpower.

Before the president’s visit, the Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency’s 1,512 personnel had to fight 49,266ha of fire spread across a province 120 times the size of Singapore.  

After Mr Widodo's visit, the number of personnel grew to 5,809.

READ: Indonesia 'doing everything' to put out forest fires: President Widodo

But disaster mitigation agency officials and volunteers still have to travel hundreds of kilometres through dirt and muddy roads to get to the fires that are mostly located deep in the jungle.

“We are facing many challenges from lack of water source, access to the locations and the prolonged drought which makes the trees and shrubs much more flammable,” Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency chief Edward Sanger told reporters.

“Firefighters even had to travel by boat to get to certain locations. Some firefighters even encountered bears, tigers and crocodiles to get to the fire near the Kerumutan wildlife preserve. Putting down the fire is not an easy job. Our officials are risking their lives.”

Forest fire
A firefighter in front of a peatland forest that has been destroyed by fire. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Since August, more than 286,000ha of forests and peatlands have been burnt across six provinces in Indonesia: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.

The fires have been blamed on the slash-and-burn practices of clearing land for plantations, exacerbated by the prolonged drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.

The forest fires have been so bad cities in Indonesia and neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore have been blanketed by thick haze.

As air quality worsened, thousands of schools in Indonesia and Malaysia have been closed and many people have been treated for respiratory illnesses.

READ: Malaysia, Indonesia shut thousands of schools over haze

READ: Malaysia PM suggests law to force companies to stop fires abroad

Since the beginning of the month, air quality in Riau's capital, Pekanbaru has consistently reached the hazardous level.

On Friday morning, the Air Quality Index (AQI) measured in one monitoring station in Pekanbaru ranged between 444 and 529.

An AQI reading of between 151 - 200 is considered unhealthy, 200-300 is considered very unhealthy and anything above 300 is considered hazardous.  

Haze in Pekanbaru
Haze blanketing the city of Pekanbaru, Riau in Indonesia, on Sep 18, 2019. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

PAST LESSONS UNHEEDED

Greenpeace Indonesia researcher Mr Rusmadya Maharuddin said the government has been slow to provide healthcare for the millions of Indonesians living in suffocating haze.  

“Air quality in Kalimantan and Sumatra has reached hazardous level. When it is already hazardous, people should be evacuated. At the very least there should be places which have good air quality like buildings equipped with air purifiers,” Mr Maharuddin told CNA.  

“You need to provide healthcare for vulnerable people like children, pregnant women and the elderly. The government has the responsibility to look after its people.

“The government has been slow to provide facilities for people exposed to the haze. This happens every year without any effort to make the emergency response procedures quicker.”

READ: Indonesia's toxic haze affecting Borneo's orangutans, say rescuers

In front of the governor’s office, a modern nine-storey structure at the heart of Pekanbaru, students have been staging protests demanding the resignation of the provincial governor.

Mr Syamsuar, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, has drawn flak for attending a seminar in Thailand between Sep 10 and 12 as the haze situation worsened.

Protest banner in Riau governor's office
A protest banner declaring that the office is "sealed by the people" on display in front of the Riau Governor's office. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

Upon his return, he told reporters that the business seminar was one he had to attend. “Important ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand attended the seminar. I was invited in August and I confirmed my attendance. I can’t just abruptly cancel my visit,” he said.

He claimed that before his departure, he had instructed the province’s health agency to set up health clinics. 

“Perhaps there are people who are not aware of this. We will make sure everyone knows where (the clinics) are located,” he continued. “All (medical) expenses will be covered by the provincial government.”

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency said health clinics in Riau were operational starting Sep 15, weeks after air quality started to deteriorate.

According to the agency, the Riau government has converted 14 buildings into makeshift refugee centres and clinics, including the indoor assembly hall of a mental asylum. All 14 locations were located within Pekanbaru city.

Child at Riau health clinic
A child crying as his parents putting him on the nebuliser to treat his asthma at a clinic in Pekanbaru in Riau. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Some have also criticised the central government for not learning from the 2015 haze which exposed around 69 million people in the region to unhealthy air.

“Last month, President Jokowi promised to fire officials who fail to prevent forest fire from spreading just as he did in 2015. But no one has ever been fired even after forest fires got this bad,” Ms Nur Hidayati, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) told CNA.

READ: Palm oil to blame for 39% of forest loss in Borneo since 2000: Study

As a response to the 2015 Haze Crisis, the president also established the Peatland Restoration Agency. “But nothing has been achieved. Peatlands are not restored. In fact, they continue to be burned and converted into plantations,” Ms Hidayati said.

LOCALS SAY HEALTHCARE SERVICES ARE LACKING

Riau residents have also criticised the state of healthcare services rendered during the haze.

Pregnant woman haze victim
Pekanbaru resident Mdm Yolanda is worried that the ongoing haze would affect her pregnancy. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

Mdm Yolanda, 30, who is eight months pregnant, recently went to a public hospital because she was worried about how the haze would affect her pregnancy. 

She recounted how she was charged for the treatment even though the governor said all expenses will be covered by the government.

“We are in a disaster situation. We are suffering because of the haze. The government should have done its job preventing forest fires. And now the government won’t pay for my medical bills?”

With the government criticised for not doing enough, local Islamist party, the Prosperous Justice Party has stepped in.

Before the government established clinics, the party had converted its main office into a makeshift refugee shelter, housing hundreds of pregnant women and those with babies and toddlers.   

“We have around 100 people seeking refuge here. The air is not healthy for pregnant women and babies even if they stay indoors because you need air purifiers,” one volunteer Irda Vriyeni told CNA.

Ms Vriyeni said hundreds of people also flocked to the makeshift shelter in need of treatment for illnesses ranging from respiratory problems, nausea to headaches.

Children at Riau refugee shelter
Children at a shelter in Pekanbaru in Riau, Indonesia, which is operated by a local Islamist party. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“We even had ambulances standing by. One time we had to evacuate an elderly woman in the middle of the night. We also used the ambulance to rush people to the hospital when their case was too severe to be treated here,” she said.

"NOT TRUE WE HAVE BEEN SLOW TO RESPOND": PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT

When contacted by CNA, the Riau government said that it is doing all it can.

“We have prepared health clinics as well as refugee centres for people affected by the haze. The governor has also instructed regencies and districts to open similar facilities. So it is not true that we have been slow to respond to the haze,” said Riau provincial secretary Ahmad Syah Harofie.

“However, not many people know about their presence. We just need to inform the public about them.”

READ: Cutting through the haze - When do you need an N95 mask?

When asked about Mdm Yolanda’s experience at the hospital, Mr Harofie noted that the government only covers medical expenses for those seeking treatments at the designated clinics.

The provincial secretary added: “Putting out forest fires is hard work and we believe we can handle it. But the weather has not been in our favour.” He also said that the provincial government has staged regular communal Islamic prayers asking God for rain.

“The reason why the haze is like this in Riau is because the wind is moving north, so we are getting haze from neighbouring provinces as well. If the other provinces are as serious as us (in tackling the issue), the haze problem in Riau would be less severe.”

Source: CNA/ni(aw)

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