Wires

'My soul's calling': Indonesian policeman battles forest fires

Topan Setiawan

PALANGKARAYA, Indonesia, Sept 24 (Reuters) - 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.

"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."

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.

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 Sept. 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.

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 waterbombs on the blazes. So Toha sometimes even has to smother small fires with a large, leafy branch.

The hardest part of his task is trying to extinguish stubborn fires on peatland, formed of partially decayed vegetation, which is flammable enough to flare up repeatedly.

Prolonged smoke exposure means Toha must occasionally use a mobile oxygen unit for respite, although he says there is no sign his fire-fighting activities have affected his health.

"Health is the first priority, definitely," he said. "I always check the masks, gauze and other equipment that we bring. And we will always have the principles of putting health and safety first."

Toha's dedication has won praise from colleagues.

"He is an example of someone who is loyal without limits," said one of them, Nahrul, who added, "We can find him at any fire that has happened." (Reporting by Topan Setiawan; Editing by Karishma Singh and Clarence Fernandez)