Land and forest fires have broken out in pockets of Indonesia since mid-July.
Last year the country caught a break, when a longer-than-normal wet season brought on by La Niña helped mitigate the fire threat.
This year, hotspots have started appearing in regions with no history of major land and forest fires, like East Nusa Tenggara and Aceh.
The government has responded by declaring an emergency status as well as deploying firefighters.
JAKARTA — Fire season has returned to Indonesia, marking the first real test of President Joko Widodo’s efforts to prevent a repeat of the 2015 haze crisis.
Land and forest fires have broken out in pockets of the archipelago country since mid-July, with the majority of fire-linked hotspots detected in the provinces of West Kalimantan, East Nusa Tenggara and Aceh.
On Aug. 6, the number of hotspots reached 282 nationwide, compared to just 239 detected the previous week, according to Indonesia’s space agency.
Since late July, West Kalimantan has had the most hotspots, with 150 on Aug. 6, followed by South Sumatra (23) and South Sulawesi (18).
“The forest and land fires in West Kalimantan keep raging on even though fire-extinguishing attempts keep going on. The number of hotspots is still high,” National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said that the number of hotspots in July was 49 percent higher than last year.
Meanwhile, U.S. weather satellite NOAA-19 detected 1,341 hotspots this year to Aug. 6, up from 1,233 during the same period last year.
“In the field, the number of hotspots is likely to be larger [than recorded] because there are some regions that are not passed by satellites during the land and forest fires,” Nugroho said.
Following the uptick in hotspots, the government has declared an emergency status in five provinces: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.
So too have five West Kalimantan districts: Kubu Raya, Ketapang, Sekadau, Melawi and Bengkayang.
“But districts that have many hotspots, such as Kapuas Hulu , Sanggau , Sintang  and Landak , haven’t declared red-alert status,” Nugroho said.
Challenge for Jokowi’s presidency
Indonesia has in the last two decades become prone to widespread fires during dry periods, thanks to the industrial-scale drainage of its vast peat swamp zones by palm oil and paper interests. The dried peat is highly combustible, and peat fires can be extremely difficult to put out.
2015 posed a tremendous challenge for the government when thousands of forest and peat fires raged across the country during the prolonged dry season brought on by the El Niño weather phenomenon.
While the scope of this year’s fires is still a far cry from 2015, analysts have predicted a return of the haze after a mostly haze-free year of 2016, when the rainy season lasted longer due to La Niña.
Arief Wijaya, senior manager on climate and forests at the World Resource Institute, a thinktank with an office in Jakarta, cited a University of Columbia project that has predicted a drier season this September to October than in the same period last year.
“Therefore, the probability of fires is bigger, maybe not as big as 2015 which was affected by El Niño strong swing, but surely this year’s fire risks are bigger than 2016,” he said in an interview.
He believes 2017 will present the first real test for the Indonesian government since 2015 because this time, La Niña is not around to help out.
“I think the impact of a policy would be tested when the condition is there to test the success or failure of the policy,” he said.
On the heels of the 2015 fires, Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, responded with some unprecedented measures, such as declaring a moratorium on peatland conversion even within existing concessions, and banning new oil palm plantation permits.
Last month, he extended the moratorium on the issuance of new conversion permits for primary forest and peatlands, the third extension of the moratorium, which was established in 2011 under then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
“The government is on the right track in terms of policies,” Wijaya said. “But the devil is in the implementation. The biggest enemy is how to implement those policies.”
At the same time, Singapore, which lies just downwind of Indonesia, is keeping an eye on its neighbor in anticipation of major fire breakouts which could send toxic haze its way.
From July 25-28, Maliki Osman, Singapore’s senior minister of state for defense and foreign affairs, visited Riau and Jambi provinces, two frequent sources of the fires.
During the visit, Maliki reaffirmed Singapore’s commitment to work together with Indonesia on haze, while applauding Riau’s efforts to mitigate fires.
“Efforts to manage and prevent forest fires that have been done by the Riau provincial government have been very impressive,” he told Indonesia’s Antara news agency during his visit to Riau.
New forest-fire trend
In Indonesia, fires usually break out in regions with large plantation areas and big concessions — land granted to developers — especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
“The plotting of hotspots’ locations from 2015 until 2017 shows that land and forest fires are happening over and over again every year in places like Tesso Nilo National Park [in Riau], Ogan Komering Ilir district [in South Sumatra] and the border between Riau and Jambi,” said Nugroho, the disaster agency spokesman.
But this year, hotspots have started appearing in regions with no history of major land and forest fires, like East Nusa Tenggara and Aceh.
“This morning, I saw [hotspots appearing] in Bangka Belitung,” Bakar, the environment minister, told reporters in Jakarta recently. “These are new regions. For me, this is worrying because these regions are unlike other regions which already have task force [to handle forest fires].”
In Aceh in July, fires engulfed 222 hectares of land, an area the size of Monaco. As many as 241 West Aceh residents suffered respiratory infections from the smoke.
“We have repeatedly reminded [the public] not to burn waste or throw cigarette butts, especially on dry soil, because it’s the peak of the dry season in Aceh now,” said Zakaria, Aceh spokesman for Indonesia’s meteorology agency, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
Officials and environmentalists are also bewildered by fires in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia’s southernmost province, part of an island chain north of Australia.
“The fires in East Nusa Tenggara are weird because there’s mostly savanna in the province,” Wijaya said. “So the types of forest are different from those in the western part of Indonesia and in Papua, which have tropical forests.
“Second, the soils in East Nusa Tenggara are infertile, making them unfit to be planted with oil palm trees. Therefore, if there are fires, they must be caused by natural hazards because it’s dry, not because of oil palm conversion.”
Bakar said this year’s fires are mostly caused by slash-and-burn activities by small farmers.
“Truthfully, lots of persuasion need to be done to the public because most of the fires are caused by traditional public land clearing done simultaneously,” she said.
Meanwhile, recent observation from Indonesia’s peatland restoration agency (BRG) shows that more than half of the manmade fires occurred in concession areas, many of them owned by large companies.
“Data from the end of July until this August shows that lots of the fires occurred in industrial forest areas, not palm oil plantations. This is a bit surprising,” Nazir Foead, head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency, told reporters in Jakarta.
He added that 26 percent of the fires occurred on peatlands.
Nugroho, on the other hand, said that the fires occurred in company concessions, local lands and national parks, hinting that there are multiple underlying causes.
But efforts to engage local villagers in preventing forest fires seem to be having some effect.
In recent years, both big companies and local governments have been trying to create “fire-aware communities” in which villagers are equipped with firefighting skills and given incentives for keeping their land from burning.
“Regions with many fire-aware communities and disaster-prone villages have fewer hotspots throughout 2017,” Nugroho said. “On the other hand, places with few of them have more hotspots. This shows that regions with lack of monitoring are prone to fires.”
The government has responded to the return of forest fires by declaring an emergency status as well as deploying firefighters.
Jokowi also summoned the environment minister twice in the second week of August to discuss how to handle the fires.
After the first meeting with Jokowi, Bakar said she planned to hold a coordinating meeting with all regional heads to anticipate escalating forest fires, which are expected to peak between August and September.
“If we look at last year’s weather, the peak [of dry season] was in August. And in 2015, it was in September. So we have to anticipate this. That’s why I am suggesting for a coordinating meeting,” Bakar explained. “I will send letters soon to ask for a coordinating meeting with all regional heads, especially those of fire-prone areas, because there are new areas [with fire outbreaks], such as Aceh, Southeast Sulawesi, North Sulawesi and East Nusa Tenggara.”
The environment ministry has also launched joint patrol in three provinces — Riau, South Sumatra and West Kalimantan — as well as a firefighting operation with the military, the police and regional disaster mitigation agencies in North Sumatra, Riau and Jambi.
As the threat of forest fires looms, officials in Jambi have resorted to extreme measures with the head of the province’s land and forest fire task force, Refrizal, ordering his subordinates to “shoot on sight” when spotting people setting fires in the province.
“It won’t be a fatal shot,” he told BBC Indonesia. “First, of course it will be a warning shot.”
Banner image: A peatland burns in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.