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With global climate change creating more extreme weather events, forest fires tragically make headlines all too often. In Kalimantan, the working areas of the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation have not been spared from occasional fire outbreaks, with years impacted by El Niño events being the most disastrous for forests, dangerous for people, and deadly for orangutans. 

El Niño refers to the years in a natural cycle, where, in Indonesia, the combination of high air pressure and extreme sea water temperature makes for prolonged hot and dry conditions that drastically increase fire risk. In particular, 2015 and 2019 saw severe forest and peatland fires whose effects were felt well beyond the island of Borneo. Now in 2023, we are at high risk again as we enter another El Niño year and the threat of forest fires threatens to hurt not only the environment but also human health, the economy, and the global climate.

As El Niño looms, it is crucial to take preventative steps to mitigate fire devastation (Photo Credit: BOSF)

In 2015, Central Kalimantan experienced forest and peatland fires covering approximately 584 thousand hectares. Thick smoke obscured the air, causing respiratory issues, and leading to the loss of habitat for various flora and fauna species, including orangutans. Between November 2015 and February 2017, the BOS Foundation had to translocate nearly 90 wild orangutans due to the devastation caused by the burns. Four years later in 2019, fires occurred once again. Although the intensity was not as high as in 2015, these fires still posed threats to the environment and human health.

In 2023, forest fires continue to be a relevant issue. Extreme weather patterns, climate change, and unsustainable agricultural practices remain the primary causes of forest fires. These fires not only result in economic and environmental losses but also jeopardize global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Several preventive efforts have been undertaken by the BOS Foundation to mitigate the impact of forest fires in Kalimantan, such as conducting patrols to monitor the land and boundaries of the working areas to prevent and report illegal activities, such as land clearing, that contribute to fire risk. Additionally, monitoring is carried out using drone technology to detect ignition sources, enabling effective fire-fighting actions as early as possible.

Restoring to peatland its healthy hydrological function through rewetting by damming canals and reflooding these carbon-rich forests, is another step taken in forest fire prevention. This step is carried out in conjunction with raising awareness and providing disaster fire mitigation training to communities around the BOS Foundation’s working area. Currently, fire-fighting teams have been established in almost eight villages, with two to three teams in each village. These teams are responsible for monitoring peatland moisture levels, clearing mitigation paths, inventorying fire-fighting equipment, and constructing wells and “beje” (ponds). These wells and ponds are then used as water sources for extinguishing fires in the case of outbreaks.

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