Picture above shows the thick haze filling the air outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia in September 2015, during the peak of the wildfire/haze season. Photo credit: Sherry Panggabean (c).

This week we are blogging about wildfires in Indonesia, and the research and practice SIG is doing to lessen the fire impacts there.  Later, we will look 15,000km away, to California, and discuss the role of fire and its impacts, and what SIG is doing to lessen these impacts to the other side of the world.

Wildfires in both places, unsurprisingly, show similarities and striking differences, which means that in both places, lessons learned can be transferred, and experimentation with novel approaches must be used. In both locations, wildfires can have similarly devastating financial and health impacts on local communities. But, they are also very different in physical fire characteristics, changing the ways fire officials go about managing them.  One of the most notable differences between the two locations is that in Indonesia, not only the plant matter above the land can burn, but so can the ground beneath it.

That’s because Indonesia contains the world’s largest area of tropical peatland (approximately 36% of the total). While the exact area has not been completely mapped, it’s estimated that there are approximately 21 million hectares (52 million acres) of peatland, with informal estimates suggesting that less than 25 percent of that is remaining as intact swamp forest, covered with a high water table much of the year that keeps it healthy, and traps carbon dioxide within its’ acidic soils.

The vast tracks of peat were once thought to essentially be “wasteland” because it was difficult to grow agriculture crops on them, and because they have lower obvious biodiversity than upland dry forests. Starting as early as the 1970’s, as industrial forestry and agriculture grew, peatlands were drained by cutting canals through, allowing the water in the peat to flow out to the surrounding rivers. The land was then cleared, burnt and planted.  Today, a large amount of dry peatland is now the base for industrial agriculture and forestry lands (namely oil palm, paper/pulp and rubber), as well as smallholder and family farming.

Once peat swamp, many parts of coastal Indonesia have now been drained and dried to support large plantation agriculture, like this oil palm plantation in Riau, Sumatra. Photo credit: Jenna Jadin (c).

Draining peat does three very undesirable things: first, it lowers the high water table, removing the surface water and allows the peat to dry out and immediately begin oxidizing, releasing years of stored carbon into the atmosphere and passively contributing to the climate change.

Second, peat soil once drained has little structure, so draining the water causes it to collapse. Some estimates suggest peat collapses up to a meter in the first year, and more slowly but continuously thereafter. This gradual collapse lowers the height of the land and leads to flooding when the land finally sinks to the level of the surrounding rivers.  At current rates of peat decomposition, some studies estimate that 75% of existing tropical peat lands that are currently covered in crops will be underwater and unsalvageable in 25 years, and 100% in 100 years.

Third, draining the peat dries it and subjects it to the possibility of fire. Peat is organic, formed over tens of thousands of years as tree roots and plant debris die and compact. Peat is essentially early stage coal, and like coal, it burns. Unless put out very quickly, fires on top of peat burn not only the soil surface, but also vertically down into the soil, which in some areas are thought to be up to 20 meters deep.

Therein lies the heart of the peat fire problem – with underground burning of the soil, in addition to the plants on top, peat fires become nearly impossible to put out. Either very targeted fire suppression techniques, or the commencement of the rainy season, are needed to extinguish the underground smouldering.  Often, such as during the strong El Nino of 2015, these fires burn into the ground in remote areas that are difficult to access, resulting in land that’s on fire for months on end.

When these fires burn, the repercussions are not just lost biodiversity from the forests they destroy. The consequences are far more extensive, and far more insidious. While the full effects of peat burning is very much an active area of research, studies have shown that these fires: decrease pollination in forests by obscuring the navigation systems of insects, destroy the habitats of orangutans and other animals, block sunlight allowing airborne pathogens to proliferate, cost billions of dollars to suppress and perhaps worst of all – at least to those of us able to read a blog post – cause the early death of thousands of people in the path of the fires’ haze.

They also emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, exacerbating the impacts of climate change and sea level rise, creating a downward spiral. And, it’s not just carbon dioxide that is emitted. Other, even more powerful greenhouse gases (GHG), like methane, are also emitted, making these fires a major contributor to climate change. As an example, the carbon dioxide emissions from fires in Indonesia have been estimated at 11.3 billion kg CO2 per day. To put that in perspective, during September and October 2015 when the fires were at their peak, the Indonesian peat fires alone were emitting more GHGs than the entire US economy.

In addition to emitting GHGs like carbon dioxide and methane, peat fires also emit a host of other particles such as metal oxides and organic compounds that are classified as cancer-causing agents. These particles are very tiny, and easily pass through paper masks, penetrate the lungs, enter the bloodstream, and wreak cardio-pulmonary havoc. Over the years, the Air Pollution Index (API) in places in the path of peat haze (like Singapore, and cities all across Sumatra and Borneo) has reached well over 300, often for days or months on end. The API reached over a staggering 2000 in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia during the 2015 fires. While estimates differ, some have suggested that an API of 300 is roughly equivalent to smoking one and a half packs of cigarettes each day.  Such intense exposure to toxic particles is the reason for the premature deaths that are often recorded during major forest fire seasons.

So, the obvious question is: how do we stop these fires?  The answer unfortunately is not an easy one.

In an ideal situation, Indonesia’s peatland would be rehabilitated to swamps with high water tables and native forests growing on top, and fire would be totally excluded. However, while such an approach is ecologically sound, many smallholder farmers in Indonesia depend on the land for cropping and use fire for clearing new areas or creating ash for fertilizer. Elimination of fire suddenly and completely would destroy many livelihoods. A more practical solution to peat fires is to find ways to manage and use the land without fire, to introduce land rehabilitation for unwanted areas where cropping failed, to develop peatland tourism, and to support the growth of local economies by developing markets for crops that can be grown on peat in its’ native swamp state.

One of the many smallholder agriculturalists of Riau, Indonesia, who depends upon production of oil palm to care for her family. Photo credit Jenna Jadin (C).

To these ends, SIG uses a pragmatic and holistic approach, based on “Integrated Fire Management” which uses prevention, preparation, response and recovery.  SIG began this work in late 2015 and has focused on prevention planning, training local community members on fire prevention, and establishing early fire detection and rapid response capabilities. The aim is to first prevent unwanted fires from starting, and when they do ignite, mitigate their size and spread through early detection and rapid suppression by well-trained wildfire teams.  SIG is doing this by working with a large plantation company that is dedicated to improving its land management, as well as improving the livelihoods of communities in their concessions and the surrounding lands.

Three overlapping prevention approaches are being used. The first of these is the development of landscape scale prevention plans based on spatial maps of local land use. These allow the company to better understand the extent of the fire prevention challenge across their lands, and through this, develop targeted budgets for fire prevention. This work began in 2016, and by the end of 2017 one hundred percent of the clients’ landscape was fully covered with a prevention plan and budget. 2018 will be the full scale roll out across all the client landscape.

The second approach is using a long term community economic and livelihood development program which is targeting villages in and around the concessions and has a major contributing component to improve fire prevention activities.  The company is targeting 500 villages in a 5 year program and has already engaged with more than 120 villages.

Finally, the third approach is using a short term and focused prevention effort immediately before the dry season in high fire-risk locations. This includes improving daily ground patrols, adding more staffed monitoring towers or stations within high risk locations, and supporting incentive programs for villages to not use fire in exchange for various community and village programs or payments.  Some results have indicated up to a 50% reduction in ignitions in the first year of this approach.

SIG-managed training on how to properly use fire suppression tools.

Across all of these approaches, SIG aims to prepare people, through high level training, and equipment, by ensuring it’s appropriate for peat fires. For the former, SIG is using international and local trainers, who take the company firefighters and management team through seven training courses based on international fire-fighting curricula. SIG translates these courses into Indonesian and adapts them to local needs. In 2017, SIG and local trainers trained more than 3000 people and will train as many in 2018.

As for equipment, SIG works with the company field offices to ensure their equipment and tools are meeting the minimum standards necessary. With the company’s IT department, SIG has also developed a large-scale fire information network, which equips remote districts with the same technology and resources as the headquarters ops center has.  This “network” is an online program which helps manage the entire fire process: prevention, planning, monitoring, training, inventorying, and reporting, as well as bringing remotely sensed data and resources to the fingertips of all fire staff across the company. The system enables field staff to track weather, receive fire-detection data, monitor placement of fire teams and equipment via GPS, track helicopters in the air, and monitor training and equipment needs when existing resources are insufficient.

The SIG team in Indonesia, led by Brett Shields, has been on ground in Indonesia for more than 2 years.  Brett notes that “The work of embedding Integrated Fire Management into a landscape scale company is satisfying, and we’ve seen enormous step changes in prevention capabilities, staff training and competence. And most importantly, the ability to detect a fire early and respond rapidly.  Our focus is now to transfer our knowledge to the company to enable it to sustain itself for its’ own future fire management needs.”

Wildfires pose different challenges in different places, depending on the physics of the fire, the natural role of fire in the ecosystem, and nearby population densities. These different challenges mean that fire officials and researchers, like those at SIG and partners, need to be testing new techniques and adapting existing ones for new conditions.  While best practices are not always clear and wildfire research is continually ongoing, what is clear is that as climate change brings longer dry seasons and shifting weather patterns, catastrophic wildfires are not going to disappear anytime soon.


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