Fires destroy 1,000ha oil palm estates

Source: http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2006/8/18/nation/15173167&sec=nation&focus=1

Friday August 18, 2006

Fires destroy 1,000ha oil palm estates

By JACK WONG

KUCHING: Fires have destroyed more than 1,000ha of oil palm plantations in Samarahan, Sri Aman and Betong divisions in southern Sarawak, adding to the worsening haze enveloping the state.

State Fire and Rescue Department acting deputy director Morni Mamat said about 200 firemen had brought the fires under control, but it would likely take another week before they were put out, provided there was no wind.

More firemen will also be deployed to put out the fires, he said here yesterday.

The plantation fires have led to further deterioration of air quality.

The city is the worst hit, registering an air pollutant index (API) reading at an unhealthy level of 161 at 7pm, up from 127 at 5pm on Wednesday.

Also at unhealthy levels were Samarahan (155), Sibu (151), Petra Jaya (148), Sri Aman (144) and Sarikei (119).

(API below 50 indicates that the air quality is good, moderate at between 51 and 100, unhealthy at 101 to 200, very unhealthy at 201 to 300, and hazardous when it is above 300.)

Morni said the area worst affected by the fires was Ladang Rumbia Debak near Betong town, where some 500ha of oil palm estate were destroyed.

He said as the plantations were on peat soil, firemen had to use total flooding and firebreak methods to effectively contain the blaze.

Open burning had been carried out in some restricted areas as allowed by the Natural Resources and Environment Board but the fire went out of control and spread to other areas, he said.

Villagers also started some other fires, he added.

He said many bush fires had also been reported in Kuching and Bintulu divisions during the current dry spell, with the fire stations there receiving an average of seven calls a day.

Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan Hong Nam said hospitals and clinics were daily treating some 200 cases of respiratory diseases like asthma and also conjunctivitis, up from the normal 40 to 50 cases.

Two hundred cases a day is the alert level, he said after attending a briefing on the haze by heads of relevant government departments and agencies here.

He said the state Education Department had been asked to direct all schools to stop outdoor activities.

Some 1.3 million surgical masks are ready for distribution, particularly to people involved in vigorous outdoor work.

Dr Chan, who is also the state disaster relief committee chairman, said there were 642 hotspots in Kalimantan, Indonesia, and 75 statewide yesterday.

We have requested an aircraft from TUDM to do cloud seeding, he added.

Asked if the national-level Merdeka Day celebrations here would be affected if the haze worsened, Dr Chan said the state would make a decision two days ahead of the event.

In the peninsula, the air quality in the Klang Valley, Negri Sembilan, Malacca and Johor also continued to worsen.

Among the places that recorded high API readings as at 7pm yesterday were Gombak (85), Port Klang (74), Petaling Jaya (65), Country Heights in Kajang (76), Shah Alam (71), Kuala Selangor (67), Kuala Lumpur (73), Seremban (67) Bukit Rambai in Malacca (77) and Muar (69).