The world has seen a particularly dry year, with record breaking fires around the world — including the United States. But the wildfires burning in Indonesia are possibly this year’s worst environmental disaster.
When wildfires rage out of control, they can stretch civil firefighting resources. In a worst case scenario, the military needs to step in to give logistical aid and air support.
The Indonesian fires are indeed a worst case scenario. The flames and smoke threaten thousands of people, millions of acres of forest and farmland and the world’s last orangutans.
The wildfires have engulfed the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, where they are ravaging the landscape and clouding the air with toxic smoke. Some experts believe the fires are emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire U.S. economy.
Haze is causing health problems not just in Indonesia but in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore — reaching as far as Thailand and the Philippines. The smog obscures visibility, disrupting air travel and economic activity. Regional military forces are responding on land, sea and air to fight the blaze.
The Indonesian military began its mission in September with the deployment of 10,000 troops to South Sumatra to aid beleaguered civilian firefighters. Thousands of soldiers and marines have deployed to assist and operate field hospitals. The long battle has forced the military to rotate out exhausted troops and send fresh troops to the fire lines.
Military forces and emergency personnel from Singapore and Malaysia have also been battling the blaze on the ground and in the sky. Though Singapore’s contingent recently returned home, Malaysia is mulling over sending additional personnel and resources. Among the Malaysian proposals is sending air force C-130s to aid with cloud seeding — a controversial weather manipulation procedure meant to cause rain.
Russian water-bombing aircraft recently joined the Southeast Asian air crews to help douse the flames. The apparent success of the Russian planes has prompted Indonesian officials to ask the U.S. and Canadian governments for additional firefighting air crews.
But the low visibility of the hazy air makes flying sorties challenging and dangerous. As always, the greatest burden falls to the firefighters and soldiers on the ground.
On Oct. 23, Jakarta announced that the Indonesian navy is preparing six warships for a possible evacuation of refugees if firefighters aren’t able to regain control of the fires. Officials stressed that this would be a last resort.
This is certainly an ecological disaster, but it’s not a natural one. Years of slash and burn agriculture, deforestation and the draining of peat swamps associated with the highly profitable oil palm industry helped create the conditions for the current crisis.
Indonesia’s annual fires have long created a haze that damages the environment and hurts other farmers. During many years, the haze has adversely affected the bee population — something critical for pollination and healthy crops.
Regardless, many officials have looked the other way, owing to the oil palm industry’s estimated $20 billion annual worth. But during this particularly dry year brought on in part by the El Nino effect, the fires have raged out of control.
The inferno seems to be causing a great deal of embarrassment for Jakarta. Shortly after Singapore withdrew its firefighting contingent, the country’s foreign ministry passive aggressively announced that it looks forward to Indonesia’s response to “repeated requests” to share information on rogue companies responsible for the haze.
The oil palm industry may be profitable for the companies that harvest and sell it, but the damage and health toll of this year’s fires will cost Jakarta an estimated $35 billion, essentially countering all economic growth Indonesia experienced in 2015.
The fires and haze are also a critical threat to Indonesia’s endangered orangutans which are only found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Orangutans are sometimes called the “gardeners” of the forest, as they play an important role in seed dispersal in their habitats — benefiting both the ecosystem and villagers who live off the land.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are an estimated 54,000 Bornean orangutans, while there are only about 6,600 remaining Sumatran orangutans.
On Oct. 21 the Indonesian government began arresting members of the companies who’ve set illegal or reckless fires, including seven corporate executives. Further, police have been investigating 24 companies and 126 individuals for breaching environmental laws.
While that may help get at the root causes — and possibly help prevent a similar catastrophe next year — the current blaze is by far the most pressing concern for authorities. There’s still a lot of work to do before the fires are contained and the haze clears. For firefighters and soldiers alike, fire is a relentless, pitiless and destructive enemy.