Hot, dry weather fanning flames in forest reserves


Laid to waste: Beyond the green ‘lalang’ are tracts of scorched land ravaged by peat fire in the southern part of the Kuala Langat Forest Reserve. — GRACE CHEN/The Star

Studies show most fires in Selangor caused by cigarette butt, open burning by hunters and farmers

While they were trying to coax a portable water pump to work, Kuala Langat Municipal Council (MPKL) Squad Pantas unit head Mazlan Abdul Manap heard a crackling sound just metres from where they were standing.

When he walked towards the source of the sound, Mazlan saw flames reignited at the site where a forest fire had been put out earlier.

There was no mistaking the look of frustration on his face.

Mazlan looking at a peat fire that has reignited after being put out. — Photos: GRACE CHEN/The Star & Courtesy photosMazlan looking at a peat fire that has reignited after being put out. — Photos: GRACE CHEN/The Star & Courtesy photos

Four days ago, the KLIA Fire and Rescue Station received an emergency call to put out a raging peat fire at Compartments 13, 17 and 22 of the southern part of the Kuala Langat Forest Reserve (HSKLS).

A red alert was sounded as the fire had broken out within an area where some 1,254ha of farmland belonging to the Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation were located.

ALSO READ: Selangor dept braces for more fires due to climatic conditions

These swathes of agricultural land, situated within the 17,000ha forest reserve were mostly planted with cash crops like corn, pineapple and ginger.

By the fourth day, it was estimated that the equivalent of 15 football fields had been destroyed by the fire that was believed to have been caused by unchecked open burning.

Kuala Langat Municipal Council Squad Pantas secretary Norhisham Othman looking at a water pump that is connected to a firefighter’s yellow hose.Kuala Langat Municipal Council Squad Pantas secretary Norhisham Othman looking at a water pump that is connected to a firefighter’s yellow hose.

Fortunately, no crops were damaged. At 5pm on March 2, the fire station declared that the fire had been extinguished.

“A forest should not catch fire, but here we are expending time, manpower and money which could be better spent on more important things,” said Mazlan who is also MPKL’s landscape director.

To put out the fire in the forest reserve, 37 men from the Fire and Rescue Department, the Civil Defence, the Forestry Department, Kuala Langat District and Land Office and nine personnel from MPKL’s Squad Pantas set up camp in the middle of a plantation and took turns to go into the burning area with water hoses connected to portable pumps.

To contain the fire, three excavators were also called in to dig trenches around the affected area. These were filled with water from tube wells to act as fire breaks.

Responders to the fire at the southern part of the Kuala Langat forest reserve trying to get a portable water pump started. Responders to the fire at the southern part of the Kuala Langat forest reserve trying to get a portable water pump started.

During the operation, one of the excavators sank into the soft peat ground of a corn field when digging a trench.

With its bottom rollers stuck in the mud, it had to be towed out. The logistics of bringing in a tow vehicle was a challenge due to the uneven dirt roads.

From the information indicated on the boards at the operation site, the financing for this operation will be handled by Plan Malaysia Selangor.

Though estimates were not available at press time, online prices showed that the daily rental rate for an excavator could come up to RM1,000 a day, not including transportation and driver fees.

Wisps of smoke indicating a peat fire at the southern part of the Kuala Langat Forest Reserve. Preventing the fire from spreading is a water canal, dug by the fire department.Wisps of smoke indicating a peat fire at the southern part of the Kuala Langat Forest Reserve. Preventing the fire from spreading is a water canal, dug by the fire department.

Peat fires have a tendency to burn underground. One risk that firefighters face is the ground giving way under them, which would send them plunging into smoldering voids.

One firefighter reportedly lost his life a day after sustaining burns from falling into one.

Fire prevention is critical

As much as 80% of the resources and effort used in battling forest fires should go into prevention, said Global Environment Centre (GEC) director Faizal Parish, a specialist in the management and restoration of rivers, peatlands, mangrove and other ecosystems.

“We are able to breathe, have rain and find cures to diseases because there are forests. Yet, 99.5% of all forest fires are started by humans,” he said.

Faizal, a Merdeka Award recipient who has more than 30 years of experience in his field, gave several examples of how forest fires were started.

Faizal says fires should not be started in or adjacent to a forest area.Faizal says fires should not be started in or adjacent to a forest area.

From studies conducted at the northern forest reserves of Kuala Langat (HSKLU) in 2015, it was found that most of the fires had started at the fringe of the North-South Expressway Central Link (Elite) from Shah Alam to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

“Cigarette butts thrown from passing vehicles would be a likely explanation,” said Faizal.

He said hunters who set fire to forest vegetation to force animals into traps, as well as campers who did not completely snuff out their campfires were also to blame.

Another cause can be attributed to the agricultural sector where farmers resorted to open burning to clear land.

Firefighters sorting fuel, fire hoses, portable water pumps and other firefighting supplies at a campsite set up to fight a forest fire in the southern part of the Kuala Langat forest reserve.Firefighters sorting fuel, fire hoses, portable water pumps and other firefighting supplies at a campsite set up to fight a forest fire in the southern part of the Kuala Langat forest reserve.

“I know of a case where a pineapple farmer had tried to clear some land. Unfortunately, the fire spread to a neighbouring plot and he ended up having to compensate his neighbour for the crops that were destroyed in the fire,” said Faizal.

In addition to extensive awareness programmes targeted at the public and agricultural sector to discourage open burning, he said there was also a need to look into areas such as establishing patrols within the community itself.

“At HSKLU, the GEC, with funding from the private sector, has three teams of patrols made up of residents from the Pulau Kempas Orang Asli village,” he said.

Another factor to look into are the many canals built by plantations or logging concerns either for irrigation or transportation purposes.

Faizal said these canals have a tendency to drain water from the forest floor. In dry seasons, the lack of moisture can make it easier for fires to start.

To prevent water outflow, canal blocks are necessary.

“In the Raja Musa Forest Reserve for example, up to 500 blocks have been done along 600km of logging canals,” he said.

In efforts to prevent forest fires, various government departments such as Forestry Department have built watch towers allowing their patrols to see as far as 10km in each direction, he highlighted.

Crop destruction resulting in massive losses for farmers, can arise from forest fires that spread to agricultural areas.Crop destruction resulting in massive losses for farmers, can arise from forest fires that spread to agricultural areas.

In recent times, drones have also been put to work.

Meanwhile, the Mineral and Geoscience Department together with the Drainage and Irrigation Department have built tube wells for firefighters to have access to water in the event of a fire.

However, in Faizal’s view, the most effective form of forest fire prevention is simple. He said people should not start fires when they are in or adjacent to a forest area.

Ready for action

In view of the dry, hot weather that makes it easy for forest fires to spread, Selangor Fire and Rescue Department director Wan Md Razali Wan Ismail assured the public that his men were ready for action.

“All equipment used in operations against forest fires have been checked and maintained to ensure they are working.

“Last year alone, the Selangor fire department spent RM1.03mil on firefighting equipment.

Wan Md Razali says the forest reserves in Raja Musa, northern and southern Kuala Langat, and Kampung Johan Setia have been identified as forest fire hotspots.Wan Md Razali says the forest reserves in Raja Musa, northern and southern Kuala Langat, and Kampung Johan Setia have been identified as forest fire hotspots.

“Selangor has 70 forest reserves covering an area of 250,129ha, which make up 31.39% of the state.

“Among the hotspots are the forest reserves of Raja Musa, HSKLU, HSKLS and Kampung Johan Setia where 102 incidents were recorded within the past five years.

“Open burning carried out by farmers to clear the land after harvest season is the main cause of forest fires,” he said.

Wan Md Razali said open burnings were also rife at illegal rubbish dumpsites.

“We get calls to put out fires every day,” he said.

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