Asia

‘My soul’s calling’: Indonesian policeman battles forest fires

PALANGKARAYA, Indonesia: Wearing green gumboots and hauling a bucket of water, Indonesian policeman Toha runs up a road on the island of Borneo, where forest fires have filled the air with thick grey smoke and swirling cinders.

With only a bandanna to shield his face from the fumes, Toha scoops a mugful of water at a time from his bucket to sprinkle on hot spots by the side of the road.

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"I see it as my soul's calling," said the 40-year-old, who goes by one name and has been putting out forest fires since 2015. "When there is any information on a forest fire, I will rush to the scene straight away with my group."

READ: Red skies over Indonesia's Jambi province due to haze – Meteorological agency

(Indonesian firefighters battle a forest fire, one of many spewing toxic haze across the region causing an increase in reports of respiratory illnesses, in Kampar, Riau. (Photo: AFP Wahyudi)

Shifting winds have spread smoke belched by fires on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra across Southeast Asia this year, bringing a choking smog to Indonesia's neighbours, Malaysia and Singapore.

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READ: Malaysia, Indonesia shut thousands of schools over haze

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

Indonesia recorded nearly 7,300 hotspots in the week to Sep 23 in Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan state on Borneo, and home to nearly 284,000 people, where air pollution has hovered above the dangerous level for days.

Air quality has reached dangerous levels in the worst-hit areas of Indonesia (Photo: AFP/ADEK BERRY)

READ: Death toll rises as millions in Indonesia suffer from raging forest fires

As part of a village team fighting the blazes, Toha's hectic efforts this year include directing colleagues to hose down burning areas, although such firefighting is beyond the scope of his job as a policeman for almost two decades.

"It has become routine that in every dry season, there will be fire," he added.

It is often a struggle to find water to pour on the flames, and sparse funds rule out frequent use of helicopters to drop waterbomb