Evacuation starts as Riau haze worsens

The Jakarta Post, 25 jun 2013

The haze in Dumai City and Bengkalis Regency in Riau caused major upheaval as residents evacuated their children and fishermen stopped marine activity.

On Monday, Antara news agency reported that the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) rose to 831. Under normal conditions, the PSI range is between zero and 50; above 300 is considered hazardous.

The air pollutant level was measured by air pollutant standards index (ISPU) equipment belonging to PT Chevron Pacific Indonesia (CPI).

Jonly Manurung, a resident of Dumai, said he would send his children to Medan, North Sumatra, to avoid the haze.

“If they stayed here, it would be hard to prevent them from playing outdoors, so it is better to send them to Medan where they would be safe,” he said, adding that the haze had restricted people’s activities.

“My nose and throat feel hot due to inhaling the haze,” Manurung added.

Over the past four days the air on Bengkalis Island mixed with dust from the forest fires, restricting visibility considerably.

Bengkalis resident Budi Prayitno expressed concern that, despite wearing masks, the dust and haze interfered with residents’ breathing.

“We are used to the annual haze but not the dust that has only occurred this year,” he said.

According to Budi, the haze has also worried local fishermen.

“Due to limited visibility accidents are more likely. Some of the fishermen are desperate to set out to sea to make money, but only dare to do so in the day time because they are afraid they will get lost in the haze when they return home in the evening,” he said.

Marjoko Santoso Dumai Health Agency head reminded residents to keep wearing masks — at least 10 thousand had been distributed by his agency — during outdoor activities.

The government set a haze alert status in Riau and a mass forest fire prevention drive as of June 21. Besides conducting water bombing with three helicopters, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) is working with the Research and Technology Application Agency (BPPT) to make artificial rain.

After twice scattering eight tons of salt for cloud-seeding, it rained only once for 30 minutes in Bukit Kapur district, Dumai, on Sunday.

“It was quite encouraging because there has been no rain for weeks. Theoretically cloud-seeding in one place triggers rain in other areas,” said BPPT Artificial Rain Technical Unit head F. Heru Widodo, adding the level of success depended on the condition of the clouds.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the government was intensifying efforts to extinguish forest fires in Riau.

“As we have not yet achieved our target — one week — to put out the forest fires, I decided to step up efforts to overcome the issue. Efforts to put out fires by regional command assisted by the central government are now directly coordinated by the head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency [BNPB]. Regional elements will of course remain,” the President told a press conference on Monday as quoted by Antara.

He said he had ordered the mobilization of existing force and budget. Reserve funds would be used for that purpose with high accountability. “In 24 hours the BNPB with the military and police will carry out this task,” the President said.

Previously, preliminary investigations singled out eight plantation companies owned by Malaysian investors as the source of forest fires in Riau.

On Monday, Riau Police reportedly arrested two suspects, identified as S and HP, for allegedly burning hectares of land in Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir.