Emergency alerts were put in place in Indonesia this week as wildfires broke out in four provinces, South Sumatra, Riau, West Kalimantan, and Central Kalimantan. By Friday, hundreds of hectares had burned and at least 90 “hot spots” were detected by satellites in the four provinces. Wildfires often break out during Indonesia’s dry season, which begins in January. The dry weather adds to risks as farmers use fire to clear farmland and drain peatland, which becomes highly flammable. The dried roots of plants can burn down to three feet underground.

The emergency alerts will be in place until the end of May, when the dry season ends, as the alert allows government resources to be used to mitigate the risk of fires breaking out of control.

Wildfire in the Indonesian peatlands
Wildfire in the Indonesian peatlands – USDA

The threat of wildfires has grown as more farmers turn to peatlands to grow crops. Many were moved to peatland by the government in response to overcrowding on some islands of Indonesia. Peat is an accumulation of plant matter along coasts or in wetlands, which naturally sinks over time. When farmers drain peat to use it to grow crops, it both creates a larger area of dry plant matter, which is a significant fire hazard, and leads to flooding as the land sinks below sea level. However, many families have invested huge amounts of time and money into the land, making it difficult to relocate them.

As peat is decayed plant matter, it is one of the most efficient ways to take carbon out of the environment; this means that when peat burns it releases 10 times more carbon than typical forest fires. A wildfire outbreak in 2015 in Indonesia burned 2 million hectares and led to a ‘massive haze outbreak’ that spread to Singapore and Malaysia. The fires cost Indonesia’s economy $16 billion, and Harvard researchers found that it caused widespread respiratory illness and may have been responsible for at least 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Burning land to clear peat has since been banned in Indonesia, and while the number of fires are down as compared to 2015, the practice is still common. The government has begun a project to ‘re-wet’ the peatlands; if the current peatland is protected and the damaged ones restored it would save more carbon every year than is emitted by Germany, according to conservationist Nazir Foead who heads the country’s Peatland Restoration Agency.

“We will inspire tens of countries,” Foead said in an interview with NPR. “This is what you can do, if you do it right.”

Other initiatives have included a government contest to map peatlands. The winner was declared on February 5, a team of German, Dutch, and Indonesian scientists who will look at the topography of peatlands and groundwater levels to determine risk. Researchers from Harvard and Columbia have also been developing a model to predict when fires will pose a pollution risk to inform policy and fire and land management decisions.

[Main story image caption: A fire fighter sprays water to extinguish a forest fire in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Several Indonesian provinces have declared emergencies in anticipation of worsening forest fires that each year spread health-damaging haze across much of Southeast Asia. (AP Photo/Rony Muharman)]

Sources and Further Reading:

Riau ups wildfire alert statusThe Jakarta Post

Indonesia’s Peat Fires Still Blaze, But Not As Much As They Used ToNPR

Rash of forest fires breaks out in IndonesiaAsia One

Indonesia mobilizes to combat health-damaging forest firesSF Gate

Scientists Win $1m to Map Peats and Help Indonesia Tackle WildfiresJakarta Globe

Smoke from 2015 Indonesian fires may have caused 100,000 premature deathsHarvard, Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Global Forest Watch Fires