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Fires in Indonesia Spike to Highest Levels Since June 2013 Haze Emergency

Bacalah posting blog dalam Bahasa Indonesia di sini

In early March 2014, forest and peat fires in Indonesia’s Riau province, on the island of Sumatra, spiked to levels not seen since the previous Southeast Asian haze crisis of June 2013. Nearly 50,000 Indonesians are suffering respiratory ailments due to the haze, according to Indonesia’s Disaster Management Agency. Dramatic satellite images of heavy smoke plumes show the large amount of pollutants being discharged to the atmosphere. The fires are extensive in areas with deep peat soils, suggesting high volumes of carbon are being released, contributing to climate change.

Global Forest Watch, a new online system that tracks tree cover change and fires in near-real time, reported last week and in an ongoing series that clearing land for agriculture is the major direct cause of the fires. As before, roughly half of the fires are burning on land managed by pulpwood, palm oil, and logging companies. Global Forest Watch shows that some of the largest fires are on fully developed plantations, despite the fact that many of these companies are committed to eliminating fire in their management practices.

The persistence of the fires—and the intensity with which they have returned—raises important questions. Below, we use new data from Global Forest Watch to explore these questions further.

1. How Many Fires Are Burning Compared with June 2013?

From February 20 through March 11, Global Forest Watch detected 3,101 “high confidence” fire alerts on the island of Sumatra using NASA’s Active Fire Data. That exceeds the 2,643 high-confidence fire alerts detected from June 13 – June 30, at the peak of the previous fires and haze crisis.

The charts below show the distribution of fire alerts in the region (Figure 1) as well as the pattern of fire alerts since January 2013 for all of Sumatra (Figure 2).

The fact that the fires are now even more prevalent than in June 2013 is of great concern, especially given the steps that Indonesian and other governments have taken to try and contain the problem since then. Plus, these fires are burning at an unusual time—almost no fires were seen in Indonesia during the same period in 2013. This latest crisis is clearly linked to the extreme drought now affecting the region, which makes burning easier and increases the likelihood that fires will burn out of control.

Interestingly, media coverage of the recent fires has been less than June 2013 due to the fact that wind patterns have directed the smoke and haze away from urban centers like Singapore and towards more rural areas in Sumatra.

2. Where Are the Fires?

As in June 2013, the majority of the fire alerts are concentrated in the Indonesian province of Riau, on the island of Sumatra. A remarkable 87 percent of the fire alerts across Sumatra for March 4-11 are in Riau Province. See the animation below showing areas of highest fires density within Riau over the last twelve days, as well as graphics on where fires occur in concession areas (Figures 3, 4 and 5).

Furthermore, roughly half of the fire alerts in Sumatra fall within land managed by palm oil, pulpwood, and logging concessions, according to data from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry (Figure 4). Additionally, some of the largest fires appear to be burning across the concessions of several major companies (Figure 5).

A list of companies operating on the affected areas is available at the end of this post. Closer investigation by Indonesian authorities on the ground is needed before drawing definitive conclusions about whether any companies have broken laws regulating the use of burning.

3. Why Does the Fires Problem Persist?

This week’s crisis is just the latest in a long line of fires episodes impacting Indonesia and surrounding countries. But while we can determine the extent of the fires and where they are happening, there’s still a lot we don’t know.

For one, Indonesia’s government fails to release the most timely, updated information on where oil palm, pulpwood, and logging companies are operating. While Global Forest Watch contains the latest available concession data, there are information gaps and issues with the accuracy of these maps.

Sharing of the latest concession boundaries and land ownership could foster better coordination between government agencies trying to tackle the fires, improved enforcement across the region, and ultimately, greater accountability for companies and relevant government agencies.

Second, further investigation on the ground is an urgent priority, including in-depth research and surveying to better understand the proportion of burning done by large companies versus medium-sized operations or smallholders. Certainly, poor farmers lack alternatives to the use of fire when clearing their land. They may also use fire to deliberately damage or claim land controlled by larger companies. Such land conflict is common across Indonesia. Governments, as well as independent research organizations, need quickly to invest more to understand the causes of the fires and better design programs for fire prevention.

That said, progress is being made. The governments of Indonesia and Singapore, as well as the wider ASEAN grouping, are taking efforts to reduce the risk of fires. Fire detection and combat efforts have been stepped up, and Indonesian law enforcement has made a significant number of arrests. Singapore is even proposing a path-breaking new law that would allow it to levy fines on companies—foreign or domestic—that cause transboundary haze that impacts the country. Governments of the ASEAN community agreed in October to collaborate and share data on fires and land use, though unfortunately this information will not be made public. And further, many companies have publicly announced “no burn” policies, and are investing in their own fire monitoring and control systems.

But as the unprecedented number of fire alerts in Indonesia shows us, these efforts are falling far short of what’s needed to curb the crisis. The fate of Indonesia’s forests, regional air quality and public health—and the people and wildlife who rely on those forests—depends on better law enforcement, more transparent information, improved coordination between government agencies, and enhanced corporate responsibility.

A list of companies operating on the affected areas is available below (Figure 6).

LEARN MORE: For more WRI analysis on Indonesia's fires, check out our blog series.

WRI used NASA’s Active Fire Data to determine the likely location of fires on the ground. This system uses the NASA MODIS satellites that survey the entire earth every 1-2 days. The sensors on these satellites detect the heat signatures of fires within the infrared spectral band. When the satellite imagery is processed, an algorithm searches for fire-like signatures. When a fire is detected, the system indicates the 1 km2 where the fire occurred with an “alert.” The system will nearly always detect fires of 1,000 m2 in size, but under ideal conditions, can detect flaming fires as small as 50 m2. Since each satellite passes over the equator twice a day, these alerts can be provided in near-real time. Fire alerts are posted on the NASA FIRMS website within 3 hours of detection by the satellite.

The accuracy of fire detection has improved greatly since fire detection systems were first developed for the MODIS satellites. Today, the rate of false positives is 1/10 to 1/1000 what it was under earlier systems first developed in the early 2000s. The algorithm used to detect fires includes steps to eliminate sources of false positives from sun glint, water glint, hot desert environments and others. When the system does not have enough information to detect a fire conclusively, the fire alert is discarded. In general, night observations have higher accuracy than daytime observations. Desert ecosystems have the highest rate of false positives. Many papers have been published to validate the NASA MODIS active fire alerts for use in various applications. WRI is employing a recommendation for detecting forest clearing fires (described in Morton and Defries, 2008), identifying fires with a Brightness value ≥330 Kelvin and a Confidence value ≥ 30% to indicate fires that have a high confidence for being forest-clearing fires. Low confidence fires are lower intensity fires that could either be from non-forest-clearing fire activity (clearing fields or grass burning), or could be older fires that have decreased in intensity (smoldering rather than flaming fires). The use of this classification establishes a higher standard for fire detection than using all fire alerts equally.

Sources: NASA FIRMS FAQ Morton, D., R. DeFries, J. T. Randerson, L. Giglio, W. Schroeder, and G. van der Werf. 2008. Agricultural intensification increases deforestation fire activity in Amazonia. Global Change Biology 14:2262-2276.


Interesting read…its’ been another horrific smoke/haze event (significant rainfall returned on 16 March) for the people who live in Riau. This article, as in the past, appears quite biased against the large companies, even though a majority (51%) of the fires are occurring on community land. WRI does not clearly account for the issue of illegal community encroachment of concession land (on average about 20%++ of all land in concessions have illegal encroachers) or the spread of fires from outside a concession to inside a concession, and how this confounds the hotspots WRI is counting on concession land.

It is misleading to state “...these fires are burning at an unusual time...” I lived in Riau for 10-years. It’s well documented that dry season occurs every year at this time (February to mid-March) …its known as the “NE monsoon season” and you even link to it in another article. The NE Monsoon season results in dry weather in Sumatra with very strong winds from the sea, complicating fire control efforts. The Sumatra people prepare for it (by cutting vegetation in Nov - Jan) and plan to do burning at this time every year…the intensity /severity of the fires varies with the length of the dry period, which is clearly severe this year, but within the normal dates of occurrence.

WRI refers to "steps" taken by the Indonesian and other governments to contain the problem since last what? The link is to another prophetic announcement just this month that Indonesia will ratify the 4-year old ASEAN TBHA, but this certainly not happen until after the parliamentary elections on 9 April...and perhaps highly unlikely with a new bunch of politicians in office, that will want to get their share of the pie. Other than government officials requesting companies to report how many water pumps they have, and to attend the provincial 'Apel Siaga' parade to show how ready they are, Indonesian provinces are no better off today to respond to fires that they were 10 years ago. The reason, 'too little to late'...flying a Kamov helicopter around in the smoke to chase after a hotspot 6-8 weeks after the fires have started is hardly an effective rapid response system. And certainly, there has been no/little change in how land is cleared in Sumatra by communities or SME's, other than by slash-n-burn techniques. Excavators are still expensive to rent/use and that is why only the large companies use them for land-clearing.

It would be worthwhile for WRI to analyze all the hotspot data they have access to over subsequent years and not just only focus on the current fire/haze event. Careful analysis may show that some areas burn repeatedly almost every time there is a long dry period during the two dry seasons per year that occur (Feb-Mar or June - Sept). This would indicate unmanaged land, and probably not in a concession, such as near Dumai, Riau or Teso Nilo National Park. Additional analysis would show that places where company plantations are established (usually about 50 - 60% of an acacia concession, legal maximum is 70%), are not burning, except of course if those areas have recently been harvested or just recently planted (equally flammable) in the past year, such as in an acacia pulpwood plantation which is harvested once every 5 years. Only looking at concession boundaries is not enough. Current (within one month to identify activities) satellite imagery of existing vegetation would be useful. Many fires in large concessions occur in the conservation zones (remaining natural forest) of concessions where communities are illegally claiming land by slashing and burning the natural forest.

Criticizing communities, the populace, and local (Regency) government officials is not as popular or easy as criticizing the large companies that WRI lists in this article, and there are certainly some companies (usually small- to medium-size enterprises) that hire people to clear the land the cheapest way possible. But until these discussions on the complexity of the situation really come to the forefront, Riau should stock-up on more N95 filter masks to be available for the next dry season.

I am available to assist WRI to gather data and review the information during the next smoke/haze event...let's say August/September 2014?

I note that WRI has not commented in the past on biochar. It would be good to hear their policy statement on this. Creating economic value for the biomass currently being burnt may be a solution. I have discussed how to do this in the past ( but with no feed-back.
An even simpler and cheaper biochar production system is demonstrated here...

I note that WRI has not commented in the past on biochar. It would be good to hear their policy statement on this subject. Creating economic value for the biomass currently being burnt may be a solution. I have discussed how to do this in the past ( but with no feed-back.
An even simpler and cheaper biochar production system is demonstrated here...

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