Fires burning in Sumatra continued to pour smoke over the region in mid-March, 2014, bringing air quality to dangerous levels. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this true-color image of the smoke and haze across the region on March 12.
According to the Jakarta Post, on March 12 the Sumatra Environmental Laboratory reported that 10 of 12 spots in Riau had an air quality of index above 300 on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), which is considered hazardous. Hazardous air quality had been recorded in some of the locations for 11 consecutive days. The province of Riau is located in the central eastern coast of Sumatra and, in this image, is hidden under thick bands of light gray smoke.
Intense fires, reported as deliberately set to clear land, were burning in the Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu biosphere reserve. This reserve contains over 700,000 hectares of sensitive peat forest that sustains a wide range of plant and animal species, including the Sumatra tiger, elephant, tapir and sun bear.
With visibility as low as 500 m (1640 ft), 58 flights were cancelled in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, on March 11. Schools were closed across the region, with 43,000 students affected in Payakumbuh, West Sumatra. On March 14, Selangor, Malaysia closed 203 schools, affecting 211,700 pupils, until the air quality improved. On that same day, according to Riau Health Agency, more than 55,000 residents in the province were suffering from haze-related illnesses, including acute respiratory infections, pneumonia and skin and eye irritation.
Poor air quality not only affected transportation, human health and the ecosystem, but has had significant economic impacts. On March 17, Reuters reported that the poor air quality had forced Chevron, the country’s biggest oil producer, to close hundreds of its wells. As a result, Indonesia’s crude oil output dropped to 790,000 barrels per day (bpd) – significantly lower than the 870,000 bpd target.
Although slash-and-burn techniques, which use fire to clear land, is illegal in Indonesia, the practice is still widespread, with approximately 99% of fires in Sumatra considered to be intentionally set. This year’s early agricultural fires began in February in Riau Province, home to palm-oil and pulpwood plantations.
The emergency has prompted strong government response, including a shoot-on-sight order for any suspects involved in land burning activities that resisted arrest. According to the Jakarta Post, police have named as many as 60 suspected-fire starters in Riau.