PONTAIN MEKAR, Indonesia -- Sitting in a makeshift security post on a hilltop overlooking scorched earth as far as the eye can see, the last thing Hendro wants to talk about is fire.
While the 25-year-old private security guard at an acacia tree plantation has not been hurt by weeks of bush fires that have produced thick, choking haze, he clearly did not want to converse when asked who might be responsible for the nearby blaze, one of thousands across Riau Province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra set intentionally to clear land for planting. Mr. Hendro appeared afraid of saying the wrong thing.
"Our job is to keep the land secure and the local community from coming onto it," Mr. Hendro said Thursday, as he and three other guards sat on boxes under a plastic tarp in this village adjacent to Tesso Nilo National Park. "It's not our job to think about the fires."
The security guards said they left the area on June 12 on a routine rotation. When they returned on June 22, the surrounding hillsides had been cleared using the illegal slash-and-burn method, spreading a harmful haze across the central part of Sumatra as well as to neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.
The guards refused to answer when asked why the hillsides were still smoldering if the fires had gone out the previous week, as they said.
"No one wants to take responsibility, or to tell who did it," said Afdhal Mahyuddin, a researcher with Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations in Riau that focuses on environmental issues.
As the crisis begins to wind down, the Indonesian authorities are shifting focus to assigning responsibility. The environment minister, Balthasar Kambuaya, said that the government had identified 14 companies suspected of starting fires. But the government has yet to name any of the companies publicly.
The National Police have arrested 14 farmers on suspicion of lighting blazes to clear land.
Environmental and wildlife investigators in Riau said plantation companies, small farmers and people who illegally encroach on concessions to harvest trees and palm oil are all culpable in starting the fires. However, they said they were not sure whether all those responsible would be punished.
"There's a total lack of law enforcement in regard to the plantations and concessions," said Mr. Afdhal, the Eyes on the Forest researcher. "The Ministry of Forestry has failed to stop it, so you have encroachment by illegal farmers, as well as companies setting fires to clear land."
Eyes on the Forest reported 6,677 hot spots between June 1 and June 23, with a peak on June 19 and June 20, while the World Resources Institute said that June could be one of the worst months for forest and land fires in Indonesia since 2001. Around 3,000 Indonesian military and civilian personnel are now in Riau to help locate and put out forest fires, having been sent there after the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, publicly apologized on Monday for the haze, which had set off a diplomatic spat with Singapore.
The World Resources Institute has reported that the majority of reported fires in Riau were located on 17 timber concessions, as well as 10 palm oil plantations.
Harry Kurniawan, a wildlife field monitor for the Indonesian offices of the conservation group W.W.F. who was tracking elephants in the area amid reports they were affected by the haze, said most of the fires around Sengati, a village along one of the main logging roads through central Riau, were started by illegal farmers.
"The fires here were started by small farmers who are encroaching on the land," he said. "They are illegally occupying the land. Land grabbing is a big problem."
Martinho Pinto, a member of the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry police in Riau, said it would take time to sort out who was responsible in each district of the province for slash-and-burn clearing.
"We're still investigating, so give us time," he said shortly before his team located a burning hillside near Pontain Mekar village. "We're not sure if it's the companies or the communities."
On Thursday, Reuters reported that three firms under investigation by the Indonesian government were owned by companies connected to the Malaysian government. An initial investigation by dozens of officials in Riau Province found evidence of fires on land licensed to PT Tunggal Mitra Plantations and PT Bhumireksa Nusa Sejati, Reuters quoted Sudariyono, the Environment Ministry's enforcement chief, as saying.
Haze was to be a prominent topic of conversation during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations security conference in Brunei this weekend, according to officials. Indonesia has also agreed to move up a special meeting on the issue from August to July that will include officials from Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand, all of which have been affected over the years by haze from Indonesian fires.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.