This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
For nearly all of September, massive fires raged through the forests of six Indonesian provinces, scorching the earth, killing wildlife, and causing a thick haze to drift into Singapore and Malaysia.
Twenty-nine-year-old Heriyanto was one of the people tasked with putting out peat fires in Mowewe, Southeast Sulawesi, as a member of the Manggala Agni Brigade, a task force formed by the Ministry of Forestry in 2003 to control forest fires. This year, the fires affected 8,000 hectares of land in Southeast Sulawesi alone.
Manggala Agni implements a strategy akin to that of guerilla warfare. They divide and conquer to address the various heat centres across 300 hectares of land. Without a swift response, the fires would have spread at a rate of 100 hectares per week. When VICE met with the team, they were putting out fires in Rawa Tindondo, a swamp that turns into a dry, highly flammable peatland in the summer.
Armed with water pumps and kilometres of hoses, the fire-fighting team sets up their gear at a water source. While walking toward the fires, they must be careful not to step on any stray branches glowing with fire.
After two hours of continuous work, Heriyanto and his team were only able to extinguish fire in a five square meter area. To avoid the detrimental effects of smoke inhalation, Manggala Agni team members wear masks or wrap their faces in wet cloth.
“We don’t fear death,” Heriyanto said.
But for them, their work truly is a life or death situation. On Aug. 23, a burning tree collapsed on Asmara, a Manggala Agni member stationed in Jambi, while he was attempting to extinguish the flames.
Heriyanto’s team needed to be extra careful, as they were not yet equipped with portable fire extinguishers and sufficient first aid tools. For taking these risks, firefighters are compensated Rp2.5 million ($178.18) per month on a yearly contract.
Also on Heri’s team is Intan Widiyati, a 19-year-old fresh graduate from a forestry program at a local vocational high school. As soon as she graduated, she enlisted in Agni Manggala and was later tasked with operating drones.
“I love adrenaline-fueled challenges,” Widiyanti said. “My most memorable experience was putting out fires for an entire day, from morning until 10 p.m.”
After a morning meeting, Widiyanti grabbed her drone, hopped on a motorcycle, and headed towards the fires. Her job was to map out heat centres based on data captured by her drone.
Flying a drone through thick haze is no easy feat. The wind, along with the fires, can change direction at any moment. Widiyanti could only fly her drone for short periods of time, as she only had one spare battery. After identifying the heat centres, Widiyanti rushed to collect a hose and help the rest of the team extinguish the fires.
“Extinguishing peat fires is more difficult,” Widiyanti said. “Even if you extinguish the fire from the top where the flames are most apparent, the bottom may still be burning more steadily, unlike grassland fires.”
Under these difficult circumstances, it’s no wonder locals prayed for rain throughout September. The night before Agni Manggala’s mission in Southeast Sulawesi, it began to drizzle. But the rain was short-lived and stopped after an hour, only adding to the intensity of the smog covering Mowewe.
The thick haze enveloping the region has caused many locals in the Southeast Sulawesi districts of Mowewe, Lalolae, and Tinondo to contract acute respiratory tract infections. In a single week, local clinics treated over 40 patients for this reason.
While that number may seem low, Mowewe has a population of just 3,840, and a large percentage of locals live too far away from clinics or don’t have the funds to treat themselves.
“From 10 p.m. last night until 10 a.m. this morning, all we could see was smoke,” said Salma, a pregnant resident of Lalolae, South Sulawesi. “It burns. You can feel it in your chest when you breathe.”
When the air became more humid with nightfall, the haze became more murky. At around midday, locals had a momentary break from the choking haze.
In September, school children in Southeast Sulawesi had to wear face masks to class. Although the mayor of East Kolaka Tony Herbiansyah, who oversees several districts affected by the fire, declared a state of emergency, students in Lalolae never received masks from the government.
The Rawa Tinondo swamp and peatlands play a crucial role in water supply and habitat preservation. Locals depend on the ecosystem it sustains to cultivate their crops. Sago is the most commonly farmed crop in the area, but the industry has declined in recent years.
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Herdianus, a seasonal farmer, said he only felt the effect of the drought after the palm oil industry set up shop in his village.
“This is the result of a water crisis. The palm oil plantations guzzle up water and leave us in the dust,” he said. “And when these peatlands catch fire, it’s bad for the ozone.”
An aerial view of Rawa Tinondo revealed that water channels flow through stretches of peatland, many of which pass through palm oil plantations. Local farmers suspect that palm oil giants created these canals in an effort to siphon off water.
La Baco, an environmental expert at Haluoleo university in Kendari, hopes that the government will prevent large-scale palm oil farmers from obtaining permits in the peatlands in Rawa Tinondo, in order to preserve their hydrological function.
“8,000 hectares burning means an incredible amount of carbon dioxide is being released into the air,” Baco said. “Rawa Tinondo should be a protected area to cultivate wildlife and boost tourism. All permits issued in the area must be carefully considered.”
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