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[JAKARTA] An Indonesian scientist has warned of a growing danger of forest fires in the western Indonesian island of Sumatra engulfing neighbouring countries in resulting haze, as occurred in 2006.

Eris Risandi, a climate scientist at Indonesia's Agency of Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics (BMKG) said earlier this month that the agency's latest calculations indicated an increased chance of forest fires in Riau, Central Sumatra — even though this is one of the country's most deforested provinces.  

He added that if forest fires were to break out, the country's high rate of deforestation would exacerbate the situation, as deforested areas have drier air, which could make the haze more vulnerable to being spread by winds.

The agency's prediction is based on satellite monitoring and observations from local weather stations, which take into account how climatic changes can increase vulnerability to forest fires and make controlling them more difficult.  

"If the wind blows to the northeast, the haze may reach Singapore and Malaysia, just as it did in the 1990s," Eris told SciDev.Net.  

The latest calculations (5 June 2012), published on the BMKG website, show that the province of Riau is the most vulnerable area to forest fire.

The agency also estimated that of all the provinces, Riau would experience the highest fire intensity levels, due to the large quantities of peat in the area. Peat is made up of partially decayed vegetation, and once the moisture is removed, it becomes dry and highly combustible.   

Lailan Syaufina, an Indonesian forest fires expert from Bogor Agricultural University in Indonesia, said that she agreed with BMKG's prediction about the potential for widespread fires breaking out in Riau.

"In Indonesia, the most influential climatic factor in triggering forest fires is [a lack of] rainfall. Riau is now entering the dry season, which has a minimal rate of rainfall, and this could make the area more vulnerable to forest fires," Syaufina told SciDev.Net

She also confirmed that the high rate of deforestation had indirectly increased the likelihood of fires breaking out, highlighting that peatlands comprise 60 per cent of Riau's area and reductions in tree numbers increase the possibility of peat igniting. "It is very easy for those areas to burn," said Syaufina.

According to BMKG's website, Indonesia's ability to predict forest fires in the region has recently been improved by their use of the Southeast Asia Fire Danger Rating System (FDRS), a software system that rates the risk of fire based on meteorological data and ground conditions.

The model used in the system, which has been developed by meteorologists in Indonesia and Malaysia with the support of Canadian scientists, also factors the distribution of combustible materials — including wood, peat, and other materials with high ignition potential — into its calculations.