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Fire-prone Indonesian Province Declares Early Emergency to Combat 'Haze'


A man puts out a fire using a tree branch at a fire field in Pekanbaru, Indonesia's Riau province, Jan. 18, 2017, in this photo taken by Antara Foto.

Indonesia's fire-prone Riau province declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, the disaster mitigation agency said, after President Joko Widodo urged regional authorities to avoid a repeat of fires that smothered Southeast Asia in smog in 2015.

Indonesia faces global pressure to put an end to slash-and-burn land clearances for palm and pulp plantations which send clouds of toxic smoke over the region each year.

Tuesday's move is intended to help Riau, which sits a stone's throw across the Malacca Strait from wealthy city-state Singapore, to begin taking preventive steps as dryer weather is expected in 2017 than in 2016.

"The province of Riau today declared emergency status for forest and land fires for 96 days," National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Nugroho told Reuters.

FILE - A man rows a boat on Siak River as thick haze from wildfires blanket the city in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, Oct. 5, 2015.
FILE - A man rows a boat on Siak River as thick haze from wildfires blanket the city in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, Oct. 5, 2015.

The 2015 fires were among the worst on record, straining ties with neighbors, and costing Indonesia an estimated 220 trillion rupiah ($16.5 billion) in economic losses, or about 1.9 percent of gross domestic product, Widodo's office has said.

Every year, Indonesia faces criticism from its neighbors Singapore and Malaysia over the smog, euphemistically known as "haze," and its failure to stop the fires from being lit.

Data from the state weather agency shows dryer weather in store for Indonesia this year, which authorities fear could spark more fires.

"We hope that at the beginning of this year there is planning and quick action [so] we can prevent forest and land fires in 2017," Widodo said.

He called for preventive measures, tougher law enforcement, more community involvement and better governance of private land and concessions.

"Check preparations for aerial operations, air patrols, rainmaking and waterbombing. These have to move quickly from the start," the president said.

Widodo thanked community stakeholders and authorities for efforts to prevent and douse fires in 2016, when hot spots were reduced by 83 percent.

"The reduction was drastic," he added.

($1=13,330 rupiah)

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