More than 40 separate fires, and thousands of hectares of burned out and smoking land, were visible yesterday during the 100km journey between the towns of Samarinda and Bontang in Indonesian Borneo. In several places flames were lapping at the edge of the road as fires ate their way through the underbrush at the rate of six or seven metres an hour. Forestry experts estimate that around 20,000 hectares of land - about the size of Birmingham - are burning in the province of East Kalimantan alone. It promises to be the biggest outbreak of forest fires on record.
"It's pretty terrifying," says Ludwig Schindler, leader of the German- run Integrated Forest Fire Management (IFFM) project in Samarinda, who surveyed the fires by helicopter last week. "From the air you see a lot of smoke but very little flame, because most of the fire is below the tree canopy and even below the ground in the peat swamps."
Satellite images last week revealed 247 "hot spots" indicating fires in Borneo alone, and further outbreaks are reported in Sumatra. With no rain in prospect, Indonesia faces a second year of unprecedented environmental disaster, on top of the collapse of its currency, riots over food shortages and increasing political challenges to the authoritarian rule of President Suharto.
Airports in Borneo have already suffered delays due to enveloping smoke, and foreign organisations based there are preparing plans for the evacuation of employees if the health risks become too great. In the Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan, fires are destroying the habitats of orang utan, proboscis monkeys, and other protected species. Even the Foreign Office has been conducting its own anxious inquiries amid fears that drifting smoke from the fires will ruin the Commonwealth Games scheduled to be held in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, in September.
Experts believe that the fires are nearly all man-made, started deliberately as a means of forest clearance by local farmers and by big timber, mining and plantation companies. Some are deliberate acts of arson, both by companies attempting to drive local people off their land and as acts of revenge by displaced farmers. But the fires are spreading out of control because of the exceptional absence of rain during what is usually south- east Asia's rainy season, a result of the El Nino weather pattern.
Smoke caused by fires during last year's El Nino caused chaos in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand and the Philippines. In Sumatra 234 people died in a plane crash which may have been caused by the haze. The total cost of the disaster is conservatively estimated at $1.8bn and 2 million hectares of burned land in Indonesia alone.
Big business bonfire, page 11