Haze returns in Indonesia amid more fires

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Authorities warned Wednesday that clouds of thick smog from fires set by slash-and-burn farmers could peak next month, with choking smoke increasing this week in western Indonesia and forcing flight delays.

Satellite pictures detected about 185 fires in plantations mostly in Sumatra island’s Riau province on Wednesday, said Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho. Last month, wafting acrid smoke blanketed Malaysia and Singapore, which suffered its worst recorded level of air pollution.

The air quality in Riau province has been worsening since Monday, forcing flight delays to and from Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, Nugroho said.

Three helicopters have led water-bombing efforts since Monday to help more than 370 firefighters on the ground. Planes also began conducting cloud-seeding runs Wednesday to try to chemically induce rain as heavy white smoke blanketed Riau and parts of the nearby Malacca Straits.

Air quality has deteriorated in many parts of Malaysia over the past three days. But the government’s air pollution index recorded unhealthy levels only in one northern town Wednesday, while other places had milder readings. Neighboring Singapore has been spared from any haze this week, with officials saying the winds were blowing the smoke north to Malaysia.

Indonesia dispatched planes and helicopters last month to battle widespread fires that upset both Singapore and Malaysia, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a public apology to his neighbors. Hundreds of schools were forced to close after the smoke drifted across the sea from Sumatra.

Air quality has since improved, but the countries will remain vigilant through early October for a possible return, Nugroho said.

He said dry weather between August and October could bring more thick smoke from Sumatra and Borneo islands, and the government plans to increase campaigns to stop illegal fires from being set as a cheap way to clear land and take action against plantation owners who violate the law.

Slash-and-burn practices destroy huge areas of Indonesian forest every summer during the dry season, angering surrounding countries, causing massive economic losses and contributing to the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, the third largest in the world.

The fires are often set to clear land for farming, corporate development or oil palm plantations.

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