The Fire Front Guard

Conservation Blog

Thick smoke began to soar, covering the sun until the sky turned orange. The sound of fire burning branches and shrubs increasingly made that evening tense. Black faces like masks came out of the siege of smoke, the faces of the front troops from MPA (fire-fighting communities), Kereng Bengkirai, Central Kalimantan.

“My eyes begin to feel sore, and it’s very difficult to breathe. Quickly run, the wind turns towards us. Immediately take off the water hose and find a safe place, thick smoke invades us and the fire is getting bigger, fallbaack teeaamm..,” shouted Aditya, Chairman of MPA Kereng Bengkirai to all his troops via HT.

The fire grew bigger because of the strong winds, smoke began to cover the road used to escape. One by one they began to give the signal that the entire troop was safe from the chase of fire. That is one of the tense situations experienced by the firefighting teams in the 2019 forest fire disaster, especially in Sebangau National Park.

“We started to form in 2017, at that time I was still a member. From 2018 until now I have been the Chairperson of MPA Kereng Bengkirai. For now, all of our members number 15 personnel,” he explained.

Aditya: “I do this job as a will for helping a lot of people”

Aditya also mentioned that the 2019 fire was the biggest since 2015. The length of the blackout area on the riverbank is up to 17km which can only be reached by a 1 hour journey on the klotok boat. The very difficult terrain became an obstacle during the blackout.

The only close water source is a river, while the trip to the hotspot spans around 4-5km in muddy terrain. It is not uncommon for personnel to enter the deep mud rising up to an adult’s thigh.

“At that time there was a friend of ours who fell into peat mud while carrying a hose, and his boots could not be retrieved. That became one of our challenges in the field, the terrain was very difficult. We also often finish putting out fires at 11 pm and started again at 6 in the morning. ” he said while laughing when remembering the incident.

The tools used were provided by the collaboration with the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) and the Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP). Equipment given included goggles, helmets, masks, boots, 20 water pumps, and 100 rolls of hose.

Aditya said, “In addition, there are also a number of tools to make artesian wells because in the forest it is difficult to find water sources to put out fires. We even had to sleep in the forest by making emergency posts because if we go home no one is guarding the fire so it doesn’t spread more. Our logistics are very sufficient because it is fully supported by BNF.”

To add to the highly stressful and intense situation, one of the personnel who had just arrived at the location was stung by a bee, resulting in his eyes swelling as big as a tennis ball. As he could not see, he had to go back home for treatment.

“Every day our adrenaline rushes, all are tense in a siege of smoke and fire that is very hot like in an oven. Our entertainment is just singing, so one of the personnel brought a microphone for us to karaoke at the post while resting,” he said while laughing out loud.

Fire-fighting communities in collaboration with Regional Disaster Management and Fire-fighting Agency during forest fire in 2019
Photo by Edwin Shri Bimo | BNF

By remembering the family at home who are always waiting for him, this lifted spirits enough for him to stay safe and finally be able to return home with all members of the team. “My wife and 2 daughters have always been my spirit, they are very supportive of me doing this work when the fire disaster comes every year,” he said.

Aditya has been conducting these blackout response actions for 10 years. Every time there was a fire he always voluntarily and quickly responded to the location and immediately helped to extinguish it. This strong will stems from when he was a child and his house had been burned down. At that time there were very few firefighters to tackle this tragedy.

He emphasised, “I do this job as a will, as long as there is a fire, I will definitely go down to blackout with the team. I hope this year is not as big as last year, all people must realize that burning peatland is very detrimental to all creatures”.

Fire-fighting communities become the fires front guard
Photo by Aditya | Abi Gwynn | Suzanne Turnock | BNF

Written by Yohanes Prahara (BNF’s Content Creator)