Worst is yet to come for Penang

Feeling the heat: The field in front of the St George’s Church in George Town is turning brown due to the scorching heat. — KT GOH/The Star

GEORGE TOWN: A hot spell with lower rainfall is projected in Malaysia from now until March but Penang has already seen a “fiery” start to the year with a blaze that damaged a cemetery in Lorong Batu Lanchang and a peat fire at a landfill that caused the evacuation and closure of schools.

While the Fire and Rescue Department is still fighting to put out the smouldering fire at the Pulau Burung landfill, nearby residents have started to move out to temporary relief centres while 10 schools have been ordered to close for three days.

The peat fire that broke out on Jan 11 is believed to have been started by scavengers burning used tyres and wires to collect the metal wires in them.

Penang Department of Environment director Sharifah Zakiah Syed Sahab warned Malaysians to brace for more bushfires in the next couple of weeks.

If statistics are anything to go by, the worst is yet to come for Penang.

In 2017, there were 240 reported cases of open burning. The number has been increasing annually. Last year, there were 705 reports.

This means that open burning has nearly tripled in the state within the past four years.

As of Jan 13 this year, there have already been 22 cases of open burning, many of which resulted in bushfires by the hectares.

On Jan 16, a fire scorched about 1.2ha (size of two football fields) of the Batu Lanchang cemetery.

Fireman Teoh Chuang Piau, who has been putting out such blazes in the last 10 years, said:

“Once there is a fire in the dry bushes, it takes less than five minutes for the blaze to spread, especially now when the weather is dry and windy.

“Every year without fail, we see bushfires and open burning become a daily issue,” said Teoh, 38.

Teoh, who is the deputy operations commander of Bukit Bendera voluntary fire squad, suspected that these fires were caused by people who were burning rubbish or clearing overgrown grass.

“There are no hydrants near these hill slopes and we cannot drive our fire engines to some of these slopes. Our fire engines’ water tanks may not be enough to put out the fire, too.”

Teoh urged landowners and the public not to resort to open burning due to the dangers involved.

He said when the wind catches the blaze, it can burn nearby buildings or houses.

“We hope people will be mindful and not burn their fields. It is best to get a contractor to clear the land or get rid of the rubbish.”

Penang environment committee chairman Phee Boon Poh warned against open burning activities across the state as it could contribute to air pollution, thus causing haze as well.

“Around this time of the year till March, we will see such cases almost every day. We will not tolerate such actions.”

“In places where bushfires can be common like in Batu Lanchang, Mount Erskine and Batu Gantong cemeteries, we reminded the cemetery caretakers to be extra careful,” he said.

Phee said the cemeteries were told to cut their grass instead of burning them.

“If we find evidence of open burning, the culprits will be handled accordingly,” he said.

Phee called on the public to be whistleblowers and alert the authorities once they see anyone starting a bushfire.

He also advised smokers to dispose of cigarette butts properly.

Phee also cautioned about the possibility of low vegetable production and haze after March when the extreme dryness leads to an increase in slash-and-burn cases in Sumatra, Indonesia.

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