Fire in Laman Satong Reforestation Site: Background and Breaking Information

Ruben inspects the fire and devastation.

In early fall 2013, ASRI's primary reforestation site at Laman Satong caught fire. Here we have collected background on the site, field reports on the fire from ASRI staff, and words of hope for our community.


Letters from Dr. Kinari Webb, founder of Health In Harmony and ASRI, and Erica Pohnan, ASRI's Conservation Director:

From Dr. Kinari Webb

In everything we do, we always try and remember that the ends are not in our hands, only the means. Well, this last week, that was really driven home. Sadly 19.5 of the 20 hectares (50 acres) of land we have reforested in Laman Satong burned.


We planted all those 80,000 seedlings with love, and we had just finished our fourth year of measurements on all the planting trials, but sadly now more than 95% of them have died.

The truth is that once rain forest is cut down, it is almost impossible to reforest, and the main threat is fire. Fires do not occur in intact forests, so none of these species are fire-adapated, but the invasive grass that comes in after heavy logging and surrounds our vulnerable seedlings is much more susceptible to fire. We knew this was a big threat, which is why we have done fire control training in the local village and surrounded the area with a fire break every year. But the fire (which probably started from a cigarette near the road) got so big that by the time people from the local village arrived it was too big to control. They had put out many fires before that threatened the site but this one they just couldn't stop. In fact, many parts of West Kalimantan are burning during this abnormally long dry season, and it is the second worst place for fires in Indonesia right now.


The local village and particularly the nursery staff are devastated because this area was a small piece of hope. One man told Cam that after he saw how hard it was to replant he would really think twice about logging again. Maybe the silver lining in this is that everyone sees even more just how hard replanting is and how critical it is to protect natural forest.

We are, of course, very sad and Thursday Cam, Hotlin, Erica, and the conservation staff met with the community just to mourn with them. We know many of you who have helped financially or with your time and effort to grow that piece of rain forest back, will also be devastated. But all we can hope is that in this process many things have been learned. Knowledge that will benefit other reforestation sites will come out of it, people's attitudes will change, and maybe we see again what it means to love nature and how hard it is to go back if we mess up the earth too much.

Below I have pasted a piece that Erica Pohnan, our new conservation director, wrote about the experience for those of you who are interested in more details.

So again at ASRI and Health In Harmony we re-commit ourselves to the only thing that is ever in our control: doing what we do with love and right intention, knowing that the ends are never in our hands. But we ask for your input as we determine what that tangibly looks like. Please email me with any thoughts, questions and suggestions. Thank you all for joining with us in the right intention even when it all doesn't work out exactly how we hope it will.

With sadness from Borneo,





From Erica Pohnan

Dear Friends of ASRI,

I write today with some bad news. Last Saturday afternoon (September 28th), there was a devastating fire in the reforestation site at Laman Satong. While we have yet to do a full-scale assessment of the damage, initial estimates suggest that as much as 95% of the full 20 hectare site burned within 2 hours.



Although there was a rapid response from the Laman Satong community, the fire was too large and too severe to be contained. Of the 20 initial respondents, 5 had to leave while the fire was still burning because of smoke inhalation. Jhony reported that when he arrived on the scene, the flames were as tall as the power lines.

The cause of the fire remains unknown and will be investigated over the coming weeks. We do know that it started from the road, roughly in front of Ibu Rasmita’s warung near the nursery. Ibu Rasmita noticed the flames around 1:50 in the afternoon and immediately contacted Jhony who mobilized the community. He contacted ASRI around 2:20 to report that the fire could not be contained. We left Sukadana immediately and arrived on site at 4:00 to a scene of devastation. By that time, the fire had burned through the 2011-2009 sites and was making its way through 2012 and the new 2013 site.


We are happy to report a few pieces of good news: One, no one was hurt while fighting the fire – a small miracle considering that the workers rushed to the scene in T-shirts and shorts. Two, a few portions of the site were unharmed. The 2012 site near the road remained untouched, and the education trail in the 2009 site is still as green and beautiful as you remember it. We are grateful for this, as some of Jhony’s favorite trees along this trail escaped the fire – to lose them would have been a horrible blow to him and the workers, who as you can imagine, are crushed right now.

All of the staff, including myself, are second guessing themselves as to what we could have done to save the site. While we intend to do a full investigation as to what happened, we have no choice but to pick up the pieces and move forward now. In the long term, we need to seriously consider the future of the reforestation site. We invite your thoughts and suggestions and would particularly like our volunteers to have a voice in the what is next for this project. We appreciate your continued moral support through this difficult time.

Tetap semangat,




Last week, a fire devastated our reforestation site. On Friday, our Reforestation Project consultant, Cam Webb, wrote a personal letter about the fire, which he later gave us permission to share here.

From Cam Webb

Health In Harmony Lamong Satong Fire

Dear friends,

I write with sad news. [...] Last Saturday, there was a huge, hot fire at Laman Satong. Within four hours it spread to almost all areas of our plantings. It seems that mortality of all plants save the tallest trees will be near 100%. One small mercy was that it failed to spread to some of the very first areas we planted in 2009. About a half hectare survived, and still looks green and well. But most of the seedlings planted in the 20 ha are dead.

I heard the news on Sunday and was at the site by noon Monday, with most of the conservation staff of ASRI.  We did our best to comfort the field crew, who are dazed and deeply disappointed. We shared thoughts and feelings for a bit, then split into 4 groups and walked around the site. Surprisingly, it rained heavily in the afternoon, just what we were hoping for: a few of the plants teetering on the edge of death might now live.  We came back on Tuesday and gently tried to ascertain what had happened on Saturday.  Finally we started to ask what people felt we should do next.


On Wednesday night we had a meeting with the community, to discuss our feelings about this, what we might do next, and also to apologize, at least to the extent that we might have done more to prevent it.  The meeting was subdued, but the desire to see ‘what was once green be green again’ seemed to be shared by all. I was struck most by the general laughter when I asked if any had had rubber orchards burned up in a fire: “of course!” was the general response, with the implication that these disasters just happen, and you get over it and try again.

We are all struggling to make sense of what has happened, as I’m sure you are and will continue to be.  For me, the first reactions were the natural ones of disappointment, sadness, loss of hopes for a green, cool forest in that place, 
and a bitter sense of wasted energy, time and money, accompanied by some guilt (more of that later). Health In Harmony Lamong Satong Fire2However, reflecting on the fire on Tuesday morning, I was struck by the truth of the classic wisdom of ‘means versus ends.’ The action of planting and tending was a good, true means to express our care of the land, and our hope for transformation.  The ‘end,’ a green forest, was of course a hope, but it was hubris to believe that our actions alone were sufficient to bring about this end (I have found Bhagavad-Gita 3:19 to be helpful here).  We create so much pain for ourselves by thinking we know how things ‘should’ turn out, when all we can control is our actions and words in the present.

Additionally, these good ‘means’ were always primarily symbolic, recognizing that 20 ha out of perhaps 10,000 ha is insignificant for the ‘end’ of re-greening the park.  But the project did communicate that i) it is damn hard to put back trees once you cut them, ii) that you can try to put them back if you believe it is important, and iii) that ASRI is serious about its restoration actions, particularly in the tending.  This vital symbolic action has already been completed, and is not in any way affected by the loss of the forest. And we believe that it has had much of the desired impact in the communities.  Logging in these nearby communities is almost zero, and people believe that ASRI’s engagement is partially responsible; the communities greatly respect us for the post-planting tending we have done; and while we cannot claim to have made everyone ‘love the trees more,’  some community members have expressed that they are more likely to think twice now before they cut a tree down.

Health In Harmony Lamong Satong Fire3Because of the essentially symbolic nature of what we have done, it is very important how we go forward from here.  I think we managed to move through the first week as well as we could, coming in with sympathy and accepting our own partial responsibility rather than seeking blame. While we have not decided yet what to do, the desire of the workers and community is clear: carry on.  I also believe that, at least for this current year (Dec 2013 planting), this is probably the right thing to do, sending the message (to all: us and community) that we continue to care for this land, and are not despairing and giving up.


As for responsibility... I owe you the truth: the fact is that the firebreak was not in place; it had been started, and was partially finished for the boundary of 2012 and most of 2011, but 2010 and 2009 blocks were linked to the road edge by a tall strip of alang-alang.  Who knows if a firebreak would have stopped a hot, wind-driven fire, but we never gave it a chance.  Additionally, there was no fire-watcher on site.  There are a number of reasons for these failures, which I won’t go into here, but as the longest-involved and senior ‘guide’ of this project, I accept a large share of the responsibility myself.  I’m sorry to you all for my part in this sad event.  I have learned a lot in the past week about conservation projects, their human context, and the right ‘attitude of heart’ for success in all its dimensions.

P1000297cropI hope you will find a way to make peace with this news.  Because of its symbolic role for ASRI, for Gunung Palung and for each of us, I think this fire is indeed a significant tragedy, and not one to be passed over lightly.  May we all know better in the future how to create and sustain the ‘Right Means’ in our nature conservation and human development activities.




Volunteer Voice, Shannon's Blog

Shannon and her husband are currently volunteering at ASRI. She wrote a lovely piece about visiting the site after the fire. Thank you for sharing Shannon.

when the forest burns: Laman Satong

Walking along the trail that skirts the reforestation site is like stepping between two worlds: on one side, it’s lush and green; while on the other, black and brown make for a desolate sight. The typical sounds of the rainforest – chirping and hooting birds, rustling leaves, and clicking insects – are replaced by harsh and foreign sounds... Keep reading here


History of Reforestation

laman satong timeline