Subterranean blaze: Indonesia struggles to douse undergound fires

Pekanbaru, Indonesia, Sept 16 (AFP/APP):Thousands of Indonesian firefighters are locked in an around-the-clock game of Whack-a-Mole as they battle to extinguish an invisible enemy, underground fires that aggravate global warming.

Vast blazes are ripping across the archipelago’s rainforests, unleashing a toxic haze over Southeast Asia that has triggered health fears and sent diplomatic tensions with Indonesia’s neighbours soaring.
Jakarta deployed more than 9,000 personnel to battle fires turning land into charred landscapes and consuming forests in hard-hit Sumatra and Borneo island.

But many of the blazes smoulder deep underground in once-swampy areas known as peatlands, where they can last for months and release eye-watering amounts of thick, acrid smoke.
“It’s so much harder to fight fires on peatlands,” a dirty and exhausted Hendri Kusnardi told AFP outside smog-hit Pekanbaru city in Sumatra.
“Even after we’ve managed to put out a fire on the ground, sometimes it is not over because it’s still burning underground. And then the next morning the ground fire will just reignite.”

The culprit behind Indonesia’s blazes is usually illegal fires set to clear land for the lucrative palm oil and pulpwood industries and the situation this year has been worsened by drier weather.

Some of the most serious fires happen in carbon-rich peatlands, topped with layers of decomposed plant material several metres thick, which become highly combustible when they’re drained of water to be converted into plantations.
“The forest and peatland fires that occur every year are a crisis created by human behaviour,” said Rusmadya Maharuddin, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.
“Sometimes the fires will continue to burn for months, releasing emissions and causing haze.” Peat fires can belch out three times as much smoke per kilogramme of material than high-temperature forest fires, she added.

At the peak of Indonesia’s 2015 forest fires — the country’s worst in two decades — blazes in peat swamp forests emitted nearly 16 million tonnes of carbon emissions daily, more than the entire US economy in the same period, according to watchdog The International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Across the Pacific Ocean, huge fires tearing through the Amazon are compounding concerns about the long-term impact, as increasing fire outbreaks globally creates more greenhouse gas emissions and makes it harder to limit temperature rises, experts say.

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