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Fires Still Raging Across Indonesian Borneo

Calendar October 23, 2023

Fires Still Raging Across Indonesian Borneo

Calendar October 23, 2023

Published on 23 October 2023

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Fires are still burning on the island of Borneo, home to the charismatic orangutan and globally important biodiversity. In 2023 so far, more than 20 thousand fire hotspots have been recorded (Hotspot BRIN) across Kalimantan – the Indonesian part of Borneo – affecting an estimated 267,936 hectares (Sipongi+).

This year alone, over 18,000 hectares have been hit by fires in the province of Central Kalimantan (where BNF operates), releasing 3.7 million tons of CO2 (Sipongi+).

At BNF, we support a variety of efforts to help bring these fires under control, providing operational support and equipment to 15 community firefighting groups, subdistrict fire attack teams, and patrol teams from the University of Palangka Raya and Sebangau National Park Agency. Community firefighters were integrated with the Central Kalimantan Regional Disaster Management Agency after the issuance of a fire status alert by the Indonesian government.

One of the dedicated community firefighting teams in action
Photo by Joan Prahara/BNF

The risk of fires is at its height during the peak of Borneo’s dry season, which began in August and is still ongoing at the time of writing. For the last two months, firefighting teams have been embroiled in a fierce battle to extinguish the flames, right at the very forefront of rainforest conservation in Asia.

Astria Yayanti is BNF’s Integrated Fire Management Coordinator, a native Dayak woman with direct experience of firefighting alongside local community groups. She explained that the community firefighters are now part of an integrated team carrying out regular patrols in the Sebangau National Park to help keep fires at bay.

“It is very sad to see fires break out on the edge of the forest. Lots of plants were beginning to regrow in areas that had burned previously, only to be destroyed once more. Small animal carcasses lay scattered in the ash – I even saw a dead snake still coiled around a clutch of eggs. How do people have the heart to start fires when this can happen?” asked Astria, as she tearfully reflected on her experiences.

Once the flames take hold, firefighters can spend days working flat out to extinguish a single fire. Fires are mostly fought from the forest’s edge in a bid to limit the damage and prevent them from spreading further in, where they become even more difficult to contain. However, even at the edge of the forest, firefighting teams can struggle for a lack of water sources to draw from.

Teams attempt to extinguish a fire at the edge of the Sebangau National Park forest
Photo by Joan Prahara/BNF

How to Put Out a Peat Fire

There are 5 methods commonly used by firefighting teams:

1. Cooling

Targeting hotspots by soaking the ground with water to help control underground peat fires, in some cases pumping from drilled wells.

2. Isolation

Smothering the flames using powder or foam to cut off the oxygen supply.

3. Dilution or oxygen limitation

Blowing inert gas, such as carbon dioxide, can also prevent the oxygen from igniting.

4. Fuel separation

Fuel separation and removal can help to extinguish fires more quickly. One such approach is to douse the fuel with water or foam to stop it from burning.

5. Breaking the chain of chemical reaction

Introducing halogen-based media, which binds to combustible elements and stops the fire reaction in its tracks. Since its use is currently prohibited, however, more emphasis is placed on initial prevention.

The integrated fire management approach used by BNF

Of the five methods detailed here, community teams in Borneo mostly rely on cooling, since peat is highly flammable during the dry season. Even after the flames above ground have been extinguished, hot elements below the peat’s surface must be cooled to prevent it from reigniting.

Alfandy, a forecaster from the Central Kalimantan Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG; Indonesian acronym), explained that, although it felt very hot during these recent periods of haze, air temperatures peaked at just 36°C, which is not unseasonably warm.

“We were lucky to have rain earlier this month, between October 8-9th. Generally, we tend to see more rain in the north of Central Kalimantan province,” he said during a video call.

Meanwhile, continued Alfandy, the central and regional BMKG have announced that the rainy season is expected to start in late October or November.

“As we approach this transition between seasons, we must be on alert for heavy rain, falling in short bursts, which could be accompanied by lightning, strong winds or even tornadoes here in Central Kalimantan,” he appealed.

The end of the dry season does not mean an end to our firefighting efforts, but rather a shift in phase. We work with a variety of stakeholders year-round to implement a multi-stage integrated fire management plan, from prevention and preparedness to emergency response and recovery.


Written by Yohanes Prahara, Content Creator and Media Liaison & Desi Natalia, Communication Manager