A fire fighter sprays water to extinguish a forest fire in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, Feb. 21, 2018.
A fire fighter sprays water to extinguish a forest fire in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, Feb. 21, 2018.

JAKARTA, INDONESIA - Deliberately set fires are burning through peatland forests in the Indonesian province of Riau, the disaster agency said Tuesday, just two days after President Joko Widodo incorrectly claimed there'd been no fires for several years.

The agency said that 843 hectares of land have burned in Riau since the beginning of the year and that fire-fighting teams are currently battling blazes in several locations.

"Conditions are expected to become more dry so the potential for fires increases," it said in a statement.

Widodo has had to correct claims made in a presidential election debate on Sunday about Indonesia's annual dry season fires that are set to clear land for plantation agriculture.

Local media reported he now says the amount of land affected has fallen dramatically since disastrous fires in 2015 when 2.6 million hectares (10,000 square miles) burned, polluting Indonesia and neighboring countries with a health-damaging haze.

Ministry of Environment and Forestry data shows more than 510,000 hectares of land burned last year, up from 165,000 hectares in 2017. Large areas of the island of Sumatra, which includes Riau, are prone to fires because of the practice of draining swampy peatland forests for plantations, making them highly combustible.

Plantation companies have been fined about $1.3 billion for fires and other environmental destruction but none have paid the penalties in cases that date back to 2009.

Sunday night's debate was the second of five televised face-offs between the opposing campaigns before April's election.

Opinion polls show Widodo about 20 percentage points ahead of Prabowo Subianto, a former general, who is campaigning on a Trump-style Indonesia First platform. He narrowly lost to Widodo in the 2014 election.

Raffles Brotestes Panjaitan, the director of forest fires control at the Environment Ministry, said there were more fires in 2018 than the previous year because regional elections distracted officials from fire prevention efforts.

"This year requires extra hard effort because there are parliament elections and the presidential election as well as moderate El Nino effects," he said.