After 10 weeks, Indonesia fires halted by rain

After creating hellish air quality conditions for ten weeks, the wildland fires in Indonesia have been knocked down by heavy monsoon rains. Some residents said they had not seen the sun during that time while the fires burned 5.1 million acres (8,063 square miles), caused 21 deaths, sickened more than half a million people with respiratory problems, and caused $9 billion in economic losses including damaged crops and hundreds of cancelled flights.

Many of the fires are burning in peat, deep underground, and are extremely difficult to completely extinguish. One of the tactics employed is digging a massive trench around the perimeter and keeping it filled with water until the fire goes out. Obviously this is very labor intensive and costly, and demands an almost unlimited supply of water.

Typically the rains will stop after the first of the year and locals expect that by the third week of February fires will again become a problem. Some of the peat fires, after hibernating during the monsoon, will become more active, and landowners will resume clearing land by setting fires.

Earlier in November, in an effort to help mitigate the disaster, the United States contributed four technical experts and 5,000 sets of gloves, shirts, jeans, hand tools, and safety goggles. The shipment, organized by USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, was described by the U.S. Forest Service as “the largest US international fire supply support ever”.

Most of the fires are started intentionally, and illegally, by landowners who want to increase the value of their property before they sell it to companies who will produce palm oil or pulp. Fees from the sale of the land goes to several different groups — the term “land mafia” has been used.

Below is an excerpt from WorldPolicy.org:

…The worst part is that often, the burned area covers flammable peatlands with its ability to snare fire, subsequently festering underground for a long time making it impossible to be quenched.

Though this act of burning land is strictly allowed for up to 2 hectares only, landowners and farmers do not even care. In fact, together with local government and capitalist corporations, they are the ones who make profitable business over this hazardous fire game.

In Indonesia, there is something called “land economic fee.” Meaning, local farmers who sell their land to corporate plantations will get a much higher price if the land is already burned, since it’s considered “ready to be planted.” To put this in perspective, unburned land is worth $640 per hectare, while burned land is valued at $820 per hectare.

In fact, the sales fee is like a fresh pie. Landowners, land marketers, the farmers group, and workers each get their own piping hot slice. Local governments even reserve a 10 percent to 13 percent stake of the fee to compensate their given authorities. In reality, this seemingly eco-disaster is indeed a man-made fire game. Nothing can stop this deadly haze without switching off the source of flame: the land mafia practice.

More information: photo of elephants helping firefighters transport fire hose and portable pumps.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+