Timeline: Riau Forest Fire the Size of Tampines & Bedok Combined Was Burning

The Amazon rainforest has been burning for three weeks. So have the forests in Indonesia.

It happened during one of the most anticipated long weekends in Singapore.

I was just getting ready to soak in the celebratory mood to mark Singapore’s 54th birthday when I received a text from an old friend.

A massive fire covering about 4,200 hectares of land had broken out at Tesso Nilo, a precious swathe of rainforest in the heart of Riau, not far from Singapore. Of which some were repeatedly burnt.

200 hectares comprising a mix of acacia plantation and secondary forest areas were burnt. 
Zulfahmi/ WWF-Indonesia

A quick check-in with our colleagues in Indonesia revealed that the cause of the fire was still unknown. But here came the horror: The fire was getting dangerously close to our forest restoration site and the Flying Elephant Squad (FES) camp.

[ FIND OUT HOW YOU CAN HELP US STOP THE FIRE HERE ]

To save Tesso Nilo, a two-pronged approach was produced: creating a barricade to prevent the fire from spreading to the camp and relocating the elephants to a safe area. This was 500 metres away from the camp.

Formed with rescued elephants from conflict areas, Tesso Nilo Flying Elephant Squad (FES) was collaboratively set up by the Conservation Authority of Riau and WWF to reduce human-elephant conflict. A forest restoration initiative was also started to eliminate illegal logging practices and forest fires and protect the natural habitat of Asian elephants.

The eight elephants in the squad and their mahouts patrol the settlement areas on the edges of the national park.

Here is a timeline of events:

9 AUGUST

The fire was detected in the afternoon.

The government and sub-district police, along with Tesso Nilo National Park personnel and WWF staff, worked hard to put out the fire with the available tools and resources. 
©Zulfahmi/ WWF-Indonesia

Unfortunately, the fire was spreading quickly. The team worked day and night to extinguish the fire.

10 AUGUST

The blazing fire continued.

Additional support such as compatible masks, oxygen cans and food supplies were deployed from our Pekanbaru field office.

11 AUGUST

Despite the team working tirelessly to put out the fire, the dry weather and hot temperatures allowed it to spread aggressively.

Emergency items like water pumps, water tanks (pictured), masks and 1000-metre hose were some of the critical things the fire-fighting team needed.
©Zulfahmi/ WWF-Indonesia

As a result, the fire was approaching the FES camp quickly, about two kilometres away.

182 hectares of land were already burnt. But thanks to the solid teamwork and fire-fighting capabilities, the camp managed to survive the fire unscathed.

12 AUGUST

By the third day, the fire had reached just 50 metres away from the entrance gate of the FES camp.

WATCH: Drone footage of the fire sweeping across Kalimantan and Sumatra

The Program Manager of WWF Riau Nurchalis Fadhli, and the Tesso Nilo National Park Head Halasan Tulus flew off to visit the fire location to oversee the team in the fire extinguishing operations at the site.

[ FIND OUT HOW YOU CAN HELP US STOP THE FIRE HERE ]

The eight elephants in the squad were relocated to a safe area where the fire would not reach. The elephants are now safe.

An emergency action plan was created – which included the evacuation of the FES team, family and elephants should conditions turn for the worst.

More personnel from our Pekanbaru office was deployed to help fight the ongoing fire. Communication and coordination efforts between the field offices and incident sites were heightened as part of the emergency action plan.

13 AUGUST

The fire was finally contained in the afternoon thanks to the persistence and collaborative efforts which include the mahouts, park authorities, local firefighters and WWF staff.

After several intense days, the fire was finally under control.
©Zulfahmi/ WWF-Indonesia

Additionally, people in Singapore had donated and supported fire-fighting equipment and training for the national park personnel three years ago, which was helpful in containing the fire emergency.

The team could now focus their efforts on rewetting the area to put out the remaining fires. 

14 – 18 AUGUST

Around 400 hectares of the burnt area near the FES camp was entirely extinguished.

The team started patrols in the burnt areas, dousing the land with generous amounts of water to completely put out the fire.

During the patrol, they found locals who were building a hut close to the Tapa river. This was near the burnt area, and precautionary actions were taken immediately to prevent activities that could potentially trigger new fires.

19 AUGUST

Fire recurred in several spots again. A joint team including WWF tried to extinguish the fire. Up to this point, efforts to put out the fire are still ongoing.

20 – 21 AUGUST

A health examination for the elephants was arranged. Initial plans to send those involved in the fire-fighting operations to undergo a medical check-up were postponed to next week as the team needed to focus on putting out the fire.

Though the number of hotspots has been significantly reduced, our work is far from over.

Stepping up on intensive monitoring work in the following weeks is critical due to the extremely dry season and human activities inside and around the national park.

Additionally, Tesso Nilo is currently home to iconic Sumatran wildlife with an estimated 113 to 180 wild Asian elephants and two Sumatran tigers.  

We need immediate assistance and more support to protect and restore the burnt forest areas and ensure that we stop the decline of wildlife populations in this precious habitat.

Every support counts. We need more equipment before 6 September to stop the fire and protect local communities and Sumatran wildlife from being impacted. Help us here.

If you like reading this, find out how we lost the last male Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, why the haze could be worse than it is, and timeline of the stranded sperm whale incident in Wakatobi waters.

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