Forestry Ministry Looks to Cloud-Seeding to Douse Forest Fires Raging in Sumatra

By Agence France-Presse on 10:13 pm Jun 19, 2013

An Indonesian villager pours water on peatland to anticipate the fire on the outskirts of Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia on June 19, 2013. Smoky haze from Indonesia’s forest fires choked Singapore and Malaysia, prompting both governments to issue health warnings to their citizens. Satellite images from Indonesia’s Riau Meteorology, Geophysics and Climatology Agency showed 113 forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, causing the haze.  (EPA Photo)

An Indonesian villager pours water on peatland to anticipate the fire on the outskirts of Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia on June 19, 2013. Smoky haze from Indonesia’s forest fires choked Singapore and Malaysia, prompting both governments to issue health warnings to their citizens. Satellite images from Indonesia’s Riau Meteorology, Geophysics and Climatology Agency showed 113 forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, causing the haze. (EPA Photo)

Indonesia plans to use weather-changing technology to try to unleash torrents of rain and extinguish raging fires on Sumatra that have cloaked neighboring Singapore and Malaysia in thick haze, an official said on Wednesday.

Singapore, which is home to 5.3 million inhabitants, has been pressing Jakarta to take action to put out the blazes, which have pushed air pollutant levels on the island to a 16-year high.

Indonesian Forestry Ministry official Raffles Panjaitan said the government planned to use a technology called “cloud-seeding” to try and put out the fires, which are mainly centered on peatlands in Riau province.

Helicopters would be sent into the skies above Sumatra to inject chemicals into clouds, which prompt the formation of heavy ice crystals, and so speed up the production of rain.

But the helicopters, from the disaster management agency, would not be dispatched until Friday at the earliest as preparations first need to be made, Raffles said.

About 100 firefighters tackling the blazes were finding them difficult to extinguish as they were smouldering underground in carbon-rich peatland, mostly in oil palm plantations, he said.

“It is extremely difficult to extinguish the fires that are burning under the surface of the peatland,” Raffles said.

He said the success of the cloud-seeding operation would depend on weather conditions.

“Hopefully there will be lots of clouds so that we can produce a lot of rain,” he added.

The worst-hit area was Bengkalis district, where 650 hectares of land was ablaze, he said, adding that 555 fires had been detected in Riau, up from 356 the previous month.

In Singapore, the Pollutant Standards Index soared to 172 at 3 p.m., well past the officially designated “unhealthy” threshold of 100, according to the National Environment Agency.

It was Singapore’s worst haze reading since September 1997 when the number peaked at 226.

The haze problem is a recurring one that happens in the dry season as a result of forest fires in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, some of them deliberately started to clear land for cultivation.

Agence France-Presse