Fires In The Forest, Smoke In Our Lungs

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Burning in the forest | Photo: Annie Jones

This year’s extremely dry September has caused smog-belching fires throughout Indonesia, and has left a blanket of smoke covering Sukadana’s lush forest.

Fires are an annual problem during the dry season in Indonesia due to the slash-and-burn land clearing practices of farmers and palm oil plantations. This year, the burning has been more extreme due to an El Niño weather system that produces tinder-dry conditions.

According to Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister, 52,000 hectares of forest in Sumatra was lost to fire this year, and 138,000 hectares in Kalimantan were scorched. The smoke from the fires has caused airport closures, cancellation of schools, forced people to wear facemasks, and left tens of thousands ill.

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The Sedahan reforestation team using pesticide sprayers to put out the fire with water | Photo: Annie Jones

ASRI’s reforestation sites are at high risk of forest fires. The combination of the 2013 disaster, the fire in Laman Satong earlier this year, and the high fire incidence in West Kalimantan has led the reforestation team to devise a robust fire prevention and mitigation plan.

This plan was only in place for a few short days when the Sedahan reforestation site was threatened.

The fire was spotted around noon in a neighboring field, and ASRI workers immediately began to dig firebreaks around the reforestation site while visually monitoring the fire. They called Pak Frans, the Sedahan reforestation site coordinator, around 3pm when it flared up again. After the team properly secured the reforestation site, they walked out to the smoldering forest and sprayed down the fire with pesticide sprayers filled with water for a few hours. The fire was under control around 5pm. That night, the forest workers rotated shifts for a round-the-clock watch to ensure the fire didn't pick up again.

The fires across the region | Photo courtesy of Google Earth

The fires across West Kalimantan, specifically around Sukadana where ASRI is located | Photo courtesy of Google Earth

This was a huge success story of yet another fire that could have caused devastating damage, but the workers followed the proper fire protocol and were well prepared to handle the situation. The reforestation team was incredibly proactive and cautious in fire prevention to protect all of their hard work.

The connection between human and environmental health is very clear to community members during this season. The reforestation team fends off fires, while the ASRI Clinic sees patients for shortness of breath, chest pain, and dry cough.

“We are actually getting fewer overall patients at the clinic right now because no one wants to go outside. Patients who do arrive tend to be in a more serious condition,” Dr. Nomi, head of the ASRI Clinic, said this week.

Although ASRI has seen a few respiratory cases, the health issues have been much higher in surrounding regions. According to data from the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics, the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) at Palangkaraya, capital of Central Kalimantan, reached a high of 1,986.73. More than five times above the "hazardous" air quality level of 300. West Kalimantan’s city of Pontianak peaked at 706.45 PSI.

Tackling both health and environmental issues, the ASRI Clinic will continue to distribute masks while educating the community on the dangers of smoke inhalation. At the same time, the ASRI reforestation team will continue to monitor existing fires and protect the forests they have worked so hard to rebuild, which will in turn protect community health and all of us around the world.

A PSI above 300 is considered hazardous to your health | Table couresty of the National Environment Agency

A PSI above 300 is considered hazardous to human health | Table couresty of the National Environment Agency

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About Annie Jones | View all posts by Annie Jones

Annie was the On-Site Communications Manager at Health In Harmony in 2015. She was based at ASRI in Sukadana, West Kalimantan.