Sumatran fires threaten repeat of smog disaster

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Forest fires are spreading out of control on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, threatening a repeat of the environmental disaster of 1997 when drifting smoke disrupted transport and choked people across south-east Asia.

Forest fires are spreading out of control on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, threatening a repeat of the environmental disaster of 1997 when drifting smoke disrupted transport and choked people across south-east Asia.

Pollution levels in Singapore appeared to be rising yesterday, while officials in Sumatra's central Riau province are warning people to wear gas masks outside, and asking the central government to declare a state of emergency. In Riau's capital, Pekanbaru, smog levels passed 300 as measured on the Air Pollutant Standard index. Anything below 50 is described as normal, up to 100 is moderate, up to 200 is unhealthy, and anything beyond that is regarded as hazardous.

The Sumatra Environmental Supervising Body said that schools were deliberately opening late so children would not have to travel during the early morning when the smog was at its thickest.

Visibility was reported to be as low as 270 yards, local people were being encouraged to stay indoors, and stocks of the cotton masks designed to filter out fumes were almost exhausted. "The air condition has been like this since 1 March," said Khodijah Nurhadi of the supervising body.

"We have suggested the government declare that Pekanbaru is in a state of emergency. Protection masks must be worn during this condition."

Satellite images revealed that at least 212 individual fires were burning yesterday in Riau province alone. Between autumn 1997 and spring 1998, during the dry weather fostered by El Niño, similar fires burnt out 10 million hectares of land in Sumatra and Borneo, devastating forests, killing wildlife and causing illness among thousands of people in Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia.

Traffic accidents, maritime collisions and at least one plane crash were blamed on the poor visibility caused by the smog, and old people and children were particularly vulnerable to respiratory diseases.

The smog devastated the tourist trade in the affected countries at a time of already intense economic crisis - since then at least one of them, Malaysia, has been reluctant to publish precise pollution readings.

Singapore said yesterday that the index had risen to a moderate 53, but that prevailing winds were likely to carry the smoke away from the island. Malaysian officials insist their country has been unaffected.

But in Indonesia at least one Sumatra-bound domestic flight has already been diverted because of the fires, which have become almost impossible to control. They are caused when fires, started by small farmers and large plantation owners to clear agricultural land, spread rapidly in dry conditions. After the 1997 disaster, Indonesia strengthened its environmental laws, but they are almost impossible to enforce because of a shortage of resources.

Satellite images can detect individual fires, but they are not always accurate enough to identify on whose land the fires have been started. Pinpointing the fires can only be done with helicopters and, in all of Indonesia, only six such aircraft are allocated for that task, none of them in Riau province.

Even if fires are pinned down, there are few fire engines or trained personnel capable of reaching such remote areas. In Riau, the Department of Forestry's registered firefighters include 100 schoolchildren and 100 more boy scouts.

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