Peat fires a bane for many in coastal Selangor


KLANG: Every year whenever the weather turns hot and dry, residents in coastal Selangor are faced with unpleasant odour and fine debris originating from smouldering peat fires in the area.

One of the areas notorious for never-ending peat fires during the dry spell is Johan Setia, where it is a norm for small-scale farmers to burn vegetation to clear the land.

A former resident there, Khoo Boo Siang, 50, lamented the effects of peat fires on his health.

“I used to suffer from burning eyes and difficulty breathing. I would have high fevers too,’’ said the restaurant owner.

While his shop remains in Johan Setia, Khoo has moved to Taman Botanic in Klang.

“We used to have to wear a face mask at all times to prevent ourselves from inhaling too much smog,’’ he added.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Prof Dr Mohd Talib Latif, whose expertise is in atmospheric chemistry and air pollution, said the natural composition in peat soil makes it a target for long smouldering fires, which are difficult to douse.

“Peatlands contain an exceptional amount of biomass because they retain substantial quantities of degraded organic matter resulting from plant decomposition,’’ he said when contacted.

He said while peatlands tend to retain a lot of water during the rainy season, this water content quickly evaporates during hot weather.

Mohd Talib explained that the peatland’s natural structures come with voids (space) filled with organic carbon, which is completely submerged by water during the rainy season.

“When the water table is significantly diminished during the dry season, oxygen enters the space (voids) between the soil structures, rendering this peat soil extremely combustible,’’ the professor said.

When this happens, he added, any source of fire, including a smouldering cigarette butt, would result in the combustion of biomass in the peat soil areas.

“In addition to flammable burning, there is also smouldering burning, which makes the fire penetrate the soil, emitting a substantial quantity of smoke,’’ he said.

Mohd Talib said the relevant authorities must ensure that no domestic burning or any other forms of burning are allowed in the peatland area during the dry spell.

“Do not even chuck cigarette butts in this area,’’ he warned, adding that in some cases, fire could trigger naturally because of extremely hot conditions.

Geological Society of Malaysia president Assoc Prof Dr Mohd Hariri Arifin said sometimes the fires start from underground as the smouldering fires could remain active very deep inside the ground.

The underground fire is suppressed by the high content of ground water in peat soil.

“The underground fire rises to the top when the volume of groundwater decreases. When the fire is put out from above, sometimes the water does not reach the smoulders which are deep underground.

“That is why there is a lot of smog and smoke even after peat fires have been doused on top, as it is still smouldering underneath. And there is a lot of smoke when the smouldering fire beneath gets wet,’’ he added.

According to Mohd Hariri, the thickness of the peat soil must first be measured to find out how much water is required to flood the area for it (the water) to reach the underground fire.

“The thickness of the ground, once calculated, will help to determine the ground water level,’’ he said.

Another solution is to build tube wells in order to tap water from underground to douse the peat fires when there is a combustion.

He said the tube wells could be drilled between 30m and 90m underground.

Hydrogeologists will work together with the relevant agencies to help build tube wells in Johan Setia, Mohd Hariri noted.

“With the tube wells, the Fire and Rescue Department will be able to draw underground water to flood the area in the event of a peat fire,’’ he said.

Selangor Fire and Rescue Department assistant director Ahmad Mukhlis Mukhtar said it is difficult for firemen to reach the fire when it is deep underground.

“Peat fires can go right down to 30m and that is why the area needs extensive flooding,’’ he said.

The Selangor government, said Ahmad Mukhlis, had implemented several initiatives such as building a compartmentalised drainage system in the peat areas.

“The compartmentalised drains have been filled with water so that firemen can use it when there is a fire,’’ he said.

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