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Playing with fire: Indonesia's age-old battle

Icons of fire: The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (top) under a haze from Indonesia's fires and Sydney's Opera House (bottom) cloaked in bushfire smog.
Icons of fire: The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (top) under a haze from Indonesia's fires and Sydney's Opera House (bottom) cloaked in bushfire smog.  


By Nick Easen in Hong Kong

(CNN) -- As Australian firefighters try to combat the worst bush inferno since 1984, Southeast Asia is again considering its own age-old battle with forest fires as the dry season approaches.

And as people are lamenting Down Under over tracts of destroyed bush, charred homes and poor air, Southeast Asians remember all too well the horrific 1997 forest conflagration and its effects -- potentially the world's worst bush fire disaster.

Sydney's bush infernos are small by comparison and are a stark reminder of what could be repeated in Indonesia after continued logging has made Borneo's forests more susceptible to fire.

The fires that struck the islands of Borneo and Sumatra destroyed sixteen times as much forest -- an area half the size of Switzerland -- and left up to 20 million people exposed to a choking haze from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

Although the intense infernos of 1997 have yet to be repeated, biologist Florian Siegart from Ludwig-Maximilians-University warns that Borneo's forests are"likely to burn again this year," and that "there is an intense fire risk for the years ahead."

Australian authorities are now hunting down the serial arsonists they believe are responsible for the destruction of acres of land. And Indonesia has recently introduced new guidelines in an effort to control illegal logging and manage its rainforest resources.

"Since droughts cannot be prevented the more effective measures are likely to be taking fast, strong legal action against offenders" says Geoff Davison spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature's (WWF) forestry program in Sabah, Borneo.

"If fire is to be eliminated as a danger more investment would help," he says.

The effects of logging

In 1997-98 the fires in Indonesia raged throughout the 9-11 month dry period, devastating large tracts of tropical bush.
In 1997-98 the fires in Indonesia raged throughout the 9-11 month dry period, devastating large tracts of tropical bush.  

Recent research findings by Siegart and colleagues show that logging has made Borneo's rainforests susceptible to fire.

They found that the removal of forest trees, fells others in their wake leaving flammable wood on the ground, yet the "data shows that primary forest after five months of no rain did not burn much" Siegart told CNN.

Since large tracts of Borneo, the world's largest forest outside Brazil, and Sumatran rainforest have been clear or selectively felled, legally or illegally, it means that the fire risk for the future has greatly increased.

With the highly probable return of El Niņo to Southeast Asia in the coming years Siegart "predicts bigger fire disasters" for the region, although WWF says "the effects of El Niņo cannot be predicted".

What is known is that untouched rainforest is more effective in the prevention of fire and that better land use planning is needed throughout the region if Sydney-style fires are to be averted.

Logging concessions and forestry departments who are involved in Borneo's tropical forests have already taken advice and training from Australian and Canadian firefighting authorities, yet a lot still needs to be done.

Icons of fire

The most poignant images that drove opinion in both cases were two of Asia's prominent city icons cloaked in a sea of smoke: Sydney Opera House in 2002 and Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers in 1997.

Ironically Indonesian authorities in the past have asked Australian firefighters to help out combating fires set-off by the slash and burn method for agriculture and land clearing by plantation companies.

Certainly if they are asked this time Australian firefighters by the time they have extinguished their own Christmas season fires will have had enough experience in flame control to effectively move onto Indonesia's summer infernos.



 
 
 
 



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