Peat fires travel underground - the Indonesian disaster

Walking around the town in the worst of the smoke, I estimated a good 50 percent were not covering their faces at all, including many travelling at speed on motorbikes.

Nigel Fumi
11 December 2015
Forest fires in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, September, 2015.

Forest fires in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, September, 2015. Demotix/ Indra Kusuma. All rights reserved.When I landed in Palangkaraya, the capital of the Indonesian province of central Borneo, in early September the smoke was already fairly thick. I was surprised they hadn't cancelled the flight on seeing the ground suddenly come into view what seemed like a few seconds before landing.

The smoky smell and thick warm air was something I recognised from 2011, the last El Niño year to hit the region (causing an extended dry season). There was definitely something of a "here we go again" sentiment from the locals I knew there too. My friend Yuyus texted: "selamat datang di kota asap" when I told him I'd arrived - welcome to smoke town. Within the next two days, all flights to and from the town had been grounded.

I think at that point the smoke was mainly coming from the east and south of Palangkaraya. This is the region in which lie the 1.4 million hectares of peatland known today as the "ex-Mega Rice" area. Having previously been nearly entirely composed of swamp forest like the Sabangau (more on the latter below), it was drained by an extensive canal system and largely felled in the mid-1990s, as part of the Mega Rice Project. The peat there was left dry and extremely flammable.

I was there in 2011 and 2012, when I assisted in biodiversity surveys in one of the small remaining forest fragments in the north-west of the area. Among many other wonderful things, I saw wild orangutans, gibbons and red langurs there. These blocks of forest are isolated from each other, and shrink every extended burning season, along with the habitat area for all these threatened species. A researcher friend of mine has been in the ex-Mega Rice area during a fire. She told me how alarming it was, as she was keeping an eye on the patch of land the fire appeared to be contained to, to see flames suddenly appear much closer to her. Peat fires can travel underground; they can appear to be extinguished and then reignite by themselves.

At the moment I'm based mostly in a forest around 1000km north of Palangkaraya. It is extremely isolated - the only settlements that can be reached in under a day are small villages on the riverbanks, and the forest is a mixture of dipterocarp and hill forest.Thankfully, this area is not currently prone to fires, and I didn't see any evidence or hear of any nearby during the recent six weeks I spent there. But winds from the south brought the haze with them throughout. The sun was a rare sight, and if seen was usually deep sunset orange even at midday.

In such a pristine forest so far from civilisation I'm used to the luxury of a stunning night sky, but this time I didn't see the moon or a single star once for the entire month and half. On some days even this forest smelled like Palangkaraya. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the smoke had travelled this far though, given that Indonesian fires have also led to haze in Singapore and Peninsular Malayasia.

This forest (Batikap Protection Forest) is the site where the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) releases orangutans that have been orphaned or displaced from their natural habitat into the wild. Normally we are in regular contact via satellite phone with the rehabilitation centre, but they were being fairly unresponsive this time, and I couldn't understand why it was taking so long for one of their vet team to be sent to help monitor the health of the released individuals. I now know that this is because they were so busy with increased intake, with so many orangutans displaced from the wild by fire, and worsening health of the animals at the centre, especially infants. The staff also had to deal with a large fire that broke out immediately adjacent to the centre, and threatened to engulf it.

Isolated as it is at the release site, we have TV at our camp, and Palangkaraya was appearing in the news more and more frequently as the national media started to latch onto the severity of the fires. When I eventually had to head back there, I became apprehensive as the smoke grew ever thicker the further south we got.

In the first town with Internet, I emailed one of the managers of the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) to let her know I'd be spending a few nights at the project house there. She replied: "Things are very bad here, Nick. I'm not going to go into detail, but you need to prepare yourself for shocking air pollution and lots of very stressed and upset people." There were terrifying stats about it on social media - "an API [Air Pollution Index] reading of 250 is unhealthy, 300 is hazardous, 350 is dangerous; Palangkaraya's stands at 2740"; "Carbon monoxide at deadly levels".

The fires were now burning in deforested areas all around Palangkaraya and, heart-breakingly, were now raging inside primary forest as well. The Sabangau Forest, where OuTrop conducts research on its unique biodiversity, including the world's largest wild orangutan population, was on fire too. All of OuTrop's research activities were put on halt as the local team bravely headed out to dig deep bores from which to gather water, then pump it up to spray onto the flames and the deep-burning peat. Keeping it at bay was essential, as the flames were at times advancing towards the research camp at a rate of 200m per day. It was a thankless and dangerous task, but they had to do it for the sake of the forest they had grown up in and around, which they loved and on which their livelihoods depend. OuTrop has not yet been able to accurately assess the overall impact on wildlife in the area, but even if some of the orangutans and other endangered wildlife living in the burnt stretches managed to escape alive, the increased competition for food in the remaining forest will mean more will surely starve to death.

Back in Palangkaraya, the smoke was thicker and heavier than I had seen before. At times visibility was under 20 metres, meaning you could barely see the other side of the street. It wasn't long before my clothes started smelling of smoke. My lungs felt it too; deep breaths in felt like a strain, so I avoided any kind of exercise or sport. On some days, usually in the afternoon, a strange yellow glow hung in the air, as if all other colours had been filtered out. Locals seemed very familiar with these "hari kuning" (yellow days); someone told me it relates to ozone in the air but I've never found out for sure.

The smoke has had a deep impact on the town. The long-term health effects on the overall population remain to be seen, but some have been visible already. As with most health crises, young children and the elderly have been the worst hit. Most parents I know have talked about their children coughing, and several mentioned diarrhoea and fever. Anecdotally I know of at least two cases where people have died (one a nine-year-old, one a baby under six months) from lung problems whose symptoms appeared in neat correlation with the smoke. The schools closed to avoid children being exposed, but as most homes have open ventilation, unsealed grates and no air conditioning, the pollution was as bad indoors as it was outdoors. In living rooms and bedrooms the smoke could be seen, smelled, inhaled just as much as on the street.

Some people were leaving for the sake of their family's health. Friends of mine with three young children, the youngest only three months old, managed to get to relatives living in a clearer part of the Kapuas district just as their eldest came down with typhoid. What a relief they didn't have to stay in Palangkaraya to have her treated. When I left the town, I shared the car with four local women (there is a regular taxi service between Palangkaraya and Banjarmasin, a coastal town five hours drive away, which has the only airport to have remained open through most of the crisis). One of them was with her two sons, the younger of whom had asthma. Unsurprisingly, his condition had worsened in the past weeks, so she was going to stay with relatives in Banjarmasin until she thought it was safe to return. The women were angry; each had something to say about the burning, and the discussion ranged from how they were personally affected to some very frank political finger-pointing on a local and national level. These cars run regularly but several I tried were booked out.

Of course the town was far from deserted, though. Most people didn't have the luxury of being able to leave, or were scared to. One friend who no longer lives in Kalimantan, Dini, worried about her family, who didn't want to leave. Dini's sister has two children under the age of two. They were mainly anxious about the security of their house - it seems looting has been a common concern among people considering leaving. Thankfully they do have air conditioning and some better-sealed bedrooms, in which they were keeping the children. Every day they sprayed each room with water to clear them of pollutant particles. Dini's family has already suffered the economic impact of the burnings: a rubber tree garden they own has been entirely destroyed. Meanwhile friends of theirs in the villages have lost their rattan plantation. The baskets and rugs they weaved from this rattan had been their main livelihood.

Decent face masks were in very short supply. In Palangkaraya in September I had been wearing a fabric surgical mask, which can be bought in shops everywhere. When I returned in late October I discovered that these are good for nothing against polluted air, and that only N95 masks, which are more rigid and form a sealed cup around the mouth and nose, should be used, and were to be changed regularly. Word had it these masks had run out in Jakarta, and stock was desperately needed from other countries. Medical oxygen supplies were depleted in Palangkaraya but could not be backed up quickly from Jakarta as it had to be shipped rather than flown.

According to a locally-made film about the fires and their impact (Heart of the Haze, for Channel NewsAsia's Get Real), people were being misinformed about the masks. Shops were claiming that turning the surgical masks inside out could protect against smoke, a claim that a doctor rejected outright in the same documentary. Walking around the town in the worst of the smoke, I would estimate that well under 10 percent of people on the street were wearing an N95 mask, and a good 50 percent were not covering their faces at all, including many travelling at speed on motorbikes.

I can't say I'm too surprised; the masks are uncomfortable and restricting, and unless you're lucky do not come free of charge. If it had been a week-long disaster, I'm sure people would have been stricter in using them, but the haze was now into its fourth month. Who wants a tight, sweaty mask pressing into their face that long?

Now, in November as I am writing this, we have finally had some days of rain, and things are temporarily much better in Palangkaraya, and the air much clearer. But the El Niño is not predicted to be fully over until early next year, and I'm told many of the fires are still burning underground. I'm in the privileged position of being able to buy myself a ticket out of here any time the going gets tough, if I think I'm in danger. But if I do it will be hard to stop thinking about my friends here, all the people I've met, human and otherwise, who simply do not have that option. Harder still is knowing this year won't be the last.

A peat forest in Kalimantan.

A peat forest in Kalimantan. Wikicommons/ RuandaAgung Sugardiman/AusAID. Some rights reserved.

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