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Disaster alert declared in four Indonesian provinces as forest fire threat looms

SINGAPORE — Indonesia's disaster agency has declared disaster alert status for four provinces, including Riau province near Singapore, as the number of hotspots from forest fires spiked.

Disaster alert declared in four Indonesian provinces as forest fire threat looms

A man puts out a fire using a tree branch at a fire field in Pekanbaru, Indonesia's Riau province, January 18, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters

SINGAPORE — Indonesia's disaster agency has declared disaster alert status for four provinces, including Riau province near Singapore, as the number of hotspots from forest fires spiked.

The affected provinces are South Sumatra, Riau, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan.

The alert status will allow the central government to mobilise resources to easily mitigate any fire threats, the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB) said in a statement on Wednesday (Feb 21).

The four provinces — which lie close to the equator — are currently entering the start of the dry season, BNPB added.

The dry season in Indonesia usually happens in two phases: From the middle of January to March, and June to September. It is interrupted by the rainy season from March to May.

In the last 24 hours alone, weather satellites are said to have detected some 90 hotspots in Indonesia.

On Tuesday, data from the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) showed two hotspots in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Graph: ASMC

ASMC on Feb 7 raised the transboundary haze alert for the northern Asean region to level 2, which is the 2nd highest alert level.

"The prevailing dry weather conditions in the northern Asean region are forecast to continue till early April 2018, and further escalations of hotspot activities can be expected in the region in the coming weeks," ASMC had said.

Singapore is currently experiencing the dry phase of the North-east Monsoon. In a statement on Wednesday, the National Environment Agency said that for this week and the next, the prevailing winds over the region are expected to continue to blow from the northwest or northeast.

"The dry weather conditions are expected to gradually ease, and an increase of shower activities will help to subdue the hotspots in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The likelihood of transboundary haze affecting Singapore is currently assessed to be low," it added.

When contacted, the Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing at the National University of Singapore said it has seen an increase in the hotspots in Sumatra and Kalimantan in the last two weeks, particularly in the provinces of Riau and West Kalimantan, with the highest number of fires detected near Pontianak in West Kalimantan.

"The current situation in Sumatra is not unusual for this time of the year, as drier weather in February and March often brings increased fire activity," Mr Chia Aik Song, an associate scientist at the centre, told TODAY.

"However, any haze caused by the fires in Indonesia is not likely to affect Singapore during this part of the year, as the prevailing north-east monsoon winds will not carry smoke from Indonesia to Singapore." 

Indonesia has stepped up efforts to tackle the transboundary haze problem since 2015, when the country suffered some of its worst forest fires, resulting in a haze that affected tens of millions of people in the region.

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