February has often been driest month of the year in Singapore with an accompanying decline in air quality. People on their morning commute have been greeted with a light haze that hangs in the air well into midday. The small island city-state has usually been able to point a finger at forest fires in neighboring Indonesia where deforestation has been commonplace and winds have blown haze toward Singapore in the past. However, this year an alarming 182 bush fires have been reported in Singapore in January alone which coincided with an unprecedented dry-spell on the island.
I spoke with an eye-witness of one of the fires who said she was walking to her home in the Bukit Batok area on the evening of February 16th when she noticed specs of ash in the air. She then realized a forested area nearby was ablaze and a fire and was being fought by the Civil Defense force firefighters, “I thought the commotion will be over and done with very soon but when I was on my way back home that evening, the fire engines were still there… they were actually stationed there for two days… I wonder how the residents there could stand the stench for two-three days! You can imagine how bad it was when my house is around 7km away from that place and the haze was so bad.”
Although the fires in Singapore are on a relatively small scale compared to it’s neighbours, having fires rage so close to the hustle and bustle of urban life that is so taken for granted in Singapore is truly disconcerting. Despite being mainly an urban and built up country, Singapore has many pockets of forested area in the heartlands. Residential estates are often interspersed with dense vegetation teeming with plant and animal life. The vegetation is considered to be ‘tropical rainforest’. Could these fires be another sign of global climate eccentricities?
A press release by the Singapore National Environmental Agency (NEA) reports that the air quality levels are in the ‘Moderate’ range according to the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) and that smoke from vegetation fires coupled with a decline in the wind speed have led to an accumulation of particles in the air. However, they report that air quality in the island remains safe for the moment and calls on the public “to be more vigilant and help to minimise the incidence of lalang and vegetation fires”.