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[JAKARTA] The stifling smoke from Sumatra that has engulfed Singapore and parts of Malaysia since last week is prompting questions about the effectiveness of Indonesia's early warning system on forest fire and the country's ability to put an end to the yearly haze problem.

Indonesia put its Southeast Asian Fire Danger Rating System (FDRS) in place in 2003 in response to huge forest fires that raged in the late 1990s, spreading noxious and harmful haze across neighbouring countries. The FDRS integrates wind, humidity and temperature data to calculate the potential of forest fires and the difficulty of extinguishing them. Scientists regularly feed this early warning information to the Indonesian government to guide control efforts.

But last week air quality in Singapore deteriorated to its worst levels ever and schools in Malaysia have had to close because of severe air pollution.

Hariadi, chief of the extreme weather early warning division at Indonesia's Agency for Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics (BMKG) where the FDRS is based, says that there is nothing wrong with the system and that warnings were provided as usual.

"We provide updates daily on our website and send the data to the Ministry of Environment, National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) and local governments. Our local weather stations in each of the provinces also text the data to local governments" Hariadi tells SciDev.Net.

"I think we have done everything to deliver our warning on forest fire. If there is something [extra] we need to evaluate [the] FDRS technology, perhaps we need to make peatlands a parameter in FDRS calculations. So far, we only use weather parameters: but these are reliable enough for early warning," he adds.

Indonesia's forest fire is still raging in many parts of Sumatra, particularly in the Riau province which has many forests on peatlands, a substrate that easily burns. However, the US-based World Resources Institute (WRI), which has monitored the fires by combining NASA satellite data and publically-available Ministry of Forestry maps of commercial forest concessions, has said that the fires are now down from their peak last June 19.

The WRI report says that very few fires are in protected forest or selective logging concessions, but that just over half are within forest concession for oil palm and timber plantations — and more than half of those are on concessions controlled by companies that are part of the Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas (RGM) groups. 

Indonesia is fighting the fires with teams on the ground, water bombing and cloud seeding, and has mobilised its military.

But Bambang Hero Saharjo, a forest fire scientist from Bogor Agricultural University, thinks that's tackling symptoms, not causes.

"If the operations succeed, they will only extinguish the fire, not the problem. There should be stronger law enforcement for the private companies and the local government should be more assertive," he says.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.