PEKANBARU, Riau: Mdm Sri Ruayati posted a note on at the front door of her tiny home sitting at the end of a small dirt road in the village of Rimbo Panjang.
Written in black and red marker pen, the note read: “We are not blaming anyone. But please carry out the duties you are sworn to do.”
Since Sunday (Sep 15), fire has been raging just 50 metres from her home, in a peatland covered in thick shrubs and tall trees. The flames have been slowly inching toward her house.
An orange glow was clearly visible above the treeline beyond her backyard fence as thick black smoke bellowed tens of metres up into the air.
In a panic, Mdm Ruayati and her three teenage daughters frantically summoned everyone around them, including the people relaxing at a small coffee shop at the side of a busy road.
People came one by one, watching the flames and documenting the scene on their phones.
“I asked my neighbours, who here called the fire brigade? Everyone fell silent,” she recounted to CNA, shaking her head in disbelief.
“I tried calling (the fire brigade) but was only told to be patient. Help never came. I immediately ran to the main road, stopping every police car, every government agency vehicle to get their attention.”
Firefighters finally came the following morning, staying for five to six hours before heading off elsewhere, thinking that they had completely extinguished the blaze.
But peatland fire is very difficult to extinguish and flames could still be smouldering beneath the surface, inside the layers of decomposed plants which can run up to four metres deep.
“At night the fire started again,” she said. “So I went back on the phone and back on the main road, stopping cars to get peoples attention.”
Mdm Ruayati has been repeating her routine every day since the fire started.
“I barely get any sleep. All I think about is how to get government officials to come and do their job. With fire so close to my house, I should have been evacuated. The government should have told me it is not safe for me to stay here and found me a shelter,” she said in a frustrated tone.
When CNA visited Mdm Ruayati on Tuesday evening, the fire near her house was still raging.
She said a government official recently came over to her house demanding that she remove the note on the front door.
“He said that my note is hurtful. He told me that I am ungrateful, that the government is doing its best,” she said.
She eventually agreed to take down the note, only to put it up again after the official left. “The fire near my home is still raging. I wonder what the official has to say about that.”
Perceived slow response by firemen, lack of healthcare access and a belief that the authorities have not learnt from past episodes of haze are just some of the issues that have frustrated those on the ground.
LACK OF MANPOWER
During a visit to Riau province this week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo instructed officials to put out the flames as soon as a forest fire is detected.
“If a fire is detected, put it out immediately. The best way is to prevent a fire from starting or at least from spreading,” the president, known popularly as Jokowi, told reporters.
But that was not what happened in the case of Mdm Ruayati, whose house is located just one hour drive from Riaus bustling capital city, Pekanbaru.
One of the reasons for the slow response might be the lack of manpower.
Before the presidents visit, the Riau Disaster Mitigation Agencys 1,512 personnel had to fight 49,266ha of fire spread across a province 120 times the size of Singapore.
After Mr Widodo's visit, the number of personnel grew to 5,809.
But disaster mitigation agency officials and volunteers still have to travel hundreds of kilometres through dirt and muddy roads to get to the fires that are mostly located deep in the jungle.
“We are facing many challenges from lack of water source, access to the locations and the prolonged drought which makes the trees and shrubs much more flammable,” Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency chief Edward Sanger told reporters.
“Firefighters even had to travel by boat to get to certain locations. Some firefighters even encountered bears, tigers and crocodiles to get to the fire near the Kerumutan wildlife preserve. Putting down the fire is not an easy job. Our officials are risking their lives.”
Since August, more than 286,000ha of forests and peatlands have been burnt across six provinces in Indonesia: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.
The fires have been blamed on the slash-and-burn practices of clearing land for plantations, exacerbated by the prolonged drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.
The forest fires have been so bad cities in Indonesia and neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore have been blanketed by thick haze.
As air quality worsened, thousands of schools in Indonesia and Malaysia have been closed and many people have been treated for respiratory illnesses.
Since the beginning of the month, air quality in Riau's capital, Pekanbaru has consistently reached the hazardous level.
On Friday morning, the Air Quality Index (AQI) measured in one monitoring station in Pekanbaru ranged between 444 and 529.
An AQI reading of between 151 – 200 is considered unhealthy, 200-300 is considered very unhealthy and anything above 300 is considered hazardous.
PAST LESSONS UNHEEDED
Greenpeace Indonesia researcher Mr Rusmadya Maharuddin said the government has been slow to provide healthcare for the millions of Indonesians living in suffocating haze.
“Air quality in Kalimantan and Sumatra has reached hazardous level. When it is already hazardous, people should be evacuated. At the very least there should be places which have good air quality like buildings equipped with air purifiers,” Mr Maharuddin told CNA.
“You need to provide healthcare for vulnerable people like children, pregnant women and the elderly. The government has the responsibility to look after its people.
“The government has been slow to provide facilities for people exposed to the haze. This happens every year without any effort to make the emergency response procedures quicker.”
In front of the governors office, a modern nine-storey structure at the heart of Pekanbaru, students have been staging protests demanding the resignation of the provincial governor.
Mr Syamsuar, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, has drawn flak for attending a seminar in Thailand between Sep 10 and 12 as the haze situation worsened.
Upon his return, he told reporters that the business seminar was one he had to attend. “Important ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand attended the seminar. I was invited in August and I confirmed my attendance. I cant just abruptly cancel my visit,” he said.
He claimed that before his departure, he had instructed the provinces health agency to set up health clinics.
“Perhaps there are people who are not aware of this. We will make sure everyone knows where (the clinics) are located,” he continued. “All (medical) expenses will be covered by the provincial government.”
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency said health clinics in Riau were operational starting Sep 15, weeks after air quality started to deteriorate.
According to the agency, the Riau government has converted 14 buildings into makeshift refugee centres and clinics, including the indoor assembly hall of a mental asylum. All 14 locations were located within Pekanbaru city.
Some have also criticised the central government for not learning from the