Indonesia's firefighters on frontline of Borneo's forest blazes

Indonesia's firefighters on frontline of Borneo's forest blazes

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From soon after sunrise, a group of volunteers gathers every day on Indonesia's portion of Borneo island to throw themselves into the desperate fight against the worst forest fires in years.

But the firefighters in the once verdant district of Pulang Pisau often have only makeshift equipment, with little more than face masks to protect against choking smoke from the blazes.

. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan
Volunteer firefighters try to extinguish fires at a peatland forest.

"We can't afford to provide fireproof suits for the volunteers, so they wear what they own, but the important thing is to ensure their safety," said Mulyadi, a military officer overseeing the effort.

The volunteers, often clad in sandals or trainers, line up in military fashion alongside others from the army, police, the disaster mitigation agency and non-government bodies, such as Greenpeace, for a briefing on the day's tasks.

. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan
Smoke rises above trees during a forest fire.

The fires have sent a choking smog across Borneo and Indonesia's island of Sumatra, as well as the neighbouring nations of Malaysia and Singapore, carried by shifting winds.  

. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan
Fire fighter personnel rest after extinguishing fire on a peatland.

This year's hot spots are the most numerous since devastating blazes in 2015, as an El Nino weather pattern exacerbates the annual dry spell.

Indonesia has sent more than 29,000 military, police and disaster agency personnel, along with 34 water-bombing helicopters, to fight the fires, its disaster agency has said.

. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan
Yudi Oktama, travels onboard a truck belonging to Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) while on patrol.

Yudi Oktama, 21, said he had spent about two months as a volunteer, popularly referred to by the abbreviation "satgas", for "satuan tugas", or task force in Indonesian, and received a stipend of 100,000 rupiah ($7) a day.

Saleh Hendra, 41, another volunteer, said the hardest part of the job was trying to tackle stubborn fires on peatland, which is especially flammable and can repeatedly reignite.

"There is more sorrow than happiness (in this work)," he said, describing long days in the field that often force the volunteers to skip Muslim Friday prayers.

Asked if he was afraid, he responded, "What else can we do? The fear is there but we’re concerned because of our families."

. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan
A man fishes as smoke covers the Kahayan river.

The role of volunteers includes educating residents on ways to avoid slash-and-burn clearance of new land for plantations, a practice often blamed for the fires.

The district in Indonesia's province of Central Kalimantan on Borneo is home to 126,000 people, and about a fifth of its 95 villages are vulnerable to forest fires in the dry season.   

It is often a struggle to find water to pour on the flames, as more than half the area's 9,000 wells were dry, said Mulyadi, who uses only one name.

. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan
A man walks as a fire burns behind a residential area.

Some residents use buckets of water to douse flames threatening their homes, often marooned in scorched areas of gnarled and charred tree trunks.

As night falls, firefighters don headlamps, flashlights, or fall back on just the torch on their handphones to illuminate their path.

. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan
Bimpi Permata Restu, an 18-year-old man who is a volunteer of Greenpeace's Forest Fire Prevention reacts as he extinguishes forest fires.

In the provincial capital of Palangkaraya, the air pollution index has hovered above 500 for days, a level that environment officials classify as dangerous.

"The air quality is similar to inhaling 50 cigarettes at the same time," said Sumarni Laman, a volunteer at the city's Ranu Welum Foundation, who works to preserve the culture of the region's Dayak people and protect forests. 

. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan
Risa Astrinova sits with her children at home.

Shopkeeper Risa Astrinova said she worried about the healthof her six-year-old, who suffers from asthma.

"I'm afraid for my son, he has just been discharged from the hospital last year," added Astrinova, 31, who was forced to close her small shop for a week because of the smoke.

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Slideshow

An MI-8MTV-1 helicopter from Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) carries water to dump on burning peatland.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

An MI-8MTV-1 helicopter from Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) carries water to dump on burning peatland.

An MI-8MTV-1 helicopter from Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) carries water to dump on burning peatland forest.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

An MI-8MTV-1 helicopter from Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) carries water to dump on burning peatland forest.

Smoke covers trees during a forest fire next to a palm plantation.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Smoke covers trees during a forest fire next to a palm plantation.

Forest which has been burned in fires is seen from above.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Forest which has been burned in fires is seen from above.

A crew member on a helicopter looks through the window as water is dumped on a burning peatland forest.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

A crew member on a helicopter looks through the window as water is dumped on a burning peatland forest.

A volunteer firefighter uses a tree branch to extinguish fires.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

A volunteer firefighter uses a tree branch to extinguish fires.

A damaged wooden house is pictured after it was burnt.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

A damaged wooden house is pictured after it was burnt.

Bimpi Permata Restu, 18, who is a volunteer at Greenpeace's Forest Fire Prevention holds a hose as he prepares to extinguish forest fires.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Bimpi Permata Restu, 18, who is a volunteer at Greenpeace's Forest Fire Prevention holds a hose as he prepares to extinguish forest fires.

A firefighter tries to extinguish fires on land near Trans Kalimantan road.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

A firefighter tries to extinguish fires on land near Trans Kalimantan road.

Volunteer firefighters try to extinguish fires on peatland forest.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Volunteer firefighters try to extinguish fires on peatland forest.

Volunteer firefighters line up as they attend a morning briefing.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Volunteer firefighters line up as they attend a morning briefing.

Farmer Muhammad Rasman, 51, collects the ashes from peatland and trees burned next to his farmland for fertiliser.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Farmer Muhammad Rasman, 51, collects the ashes from peatland and trees burned next to his farmland for fertiliser.

An orangutan sits as smoke covers Salat Island which is used by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) as a pre-release island for orangutan.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

An orangutan sits as smoke covers Salat Island which is used by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) as a pre-release island for orangutan.

Orangutan gather as smoke covers Salat Island.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Orangutan gather as smoke covers Salat Island.

A student distributes free masks to motorists to cope with smoke caused by forest fires.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

A student distributes free masks to motorists to cope with smoke caused by forest fires.

Students shout slogans as they protest about haze and forest fires, outside the office of Central Kalimantan Governor.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Students shout slogans as they protest about haze and forest fires, outside the office of Central Kalimantan Governor.

Children wear masks walk as they attend mass prayers for rain.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Children wear masks walk as they attend mass prayers for rain.

A man tries to extinguish a fire on peatland.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

A man tries to extinguish a fire on peatland.

Children stand as they watch a police water-canon extinguishing fires at a peatland forest.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Children stand as they watch a police water-canon extinguishing fires at a peatland forest.

A firefighter tries to extinguish forest fires at Sebangau National Park area.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

A firefighter tries to extinguish forest fires at Sebangau National Park area.

A firefighter stands with a torch as he tries to extinguish forest fires at Sebangau National Park area.
. Palangka Raya, Indonesia. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

A firefighter stands with a torch as he tries to extinguish forest fires at Sebangau National Park area.