August 22, 2005

Haze eases as rain, firefighters douse Indonesia blazes

By Ade Rina and Tomi Soetjipto

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Heavy rains and an international
firefighting effort on Indonesia's Sumatra have extinguished
most forest fires that had spewed choking haze over parts of
the island and neighboring Malaysia, officials said on Monday.

Smoke from the fires on Sumatra island blanketed parts of
peninsular Malaysia -- including its capital city, Kuala Lumpur
-- in recent weeks, prompting the country to send firefighters
to Sumatra last week.

Singapore, another Indonesia neighbor, also sent fire

"Heavy rains on Saturday made the total number of hotspots
decline. On August 21, it was reported that there were only 28.
Everything is going back to normal now," Eviarni, an official
from the environmental supervisory agency in Sumatra's Riau
province, told Reuters.

More than 100 hotspots -- areas satellites show as having
fires -- could be seen at the height of the haze.

Residents in Riau province, hardest hit by the fires and
home to some of the world's major palm oil plantations, were no
longer required to wear face masks, she added.

The foreign firefighters had contributed to putting out the
blazes, Yusman, another official from the environmental agency
in Rokan Hillir, at the epicenter of the worst fires, told

"All parties have done their job well. The rain helped to
finish the job we have done. The Malaysian and Singapore fire
squads are still here. They were really helpful," Yusman added.

Acrid smoke from fires deliberately lit on Sumatra to clear
land for agriculture, had once again tested ties among the
Southeast Asian neighbors after the smoke caused Malaysia's
worst pollution crisis in eight years.

Malaysia sent 128 firemen to help douse the flames, and
Singapore 56, according to officials. Australia reportedly
planned to send a team of 12 bushfire experts.

Malaysia complains Indonesia has yet to ratify a regional
agreement aimed at controlling forest fires in Southeast Asia,
while Indonesians blame Malaysian-owned palm-oil plantations
both in Indonesia and in Malaysia for contributing to the haze.

Malaysia is the biggest producer of palm oil and, during
drier weather at this time of year, plantation owners sometimes
flout bans on open burning to clear land to plant new trees.

Singapore, which has extensive economic interests in
Indonesia, has also been pulled into the blame game on

The haze tends to be an annual problem but its intensity
varies with the severity of the dry season and wind patterns.
Fires on Borneo island, parts of which are under Indonesian,
Malaysian and Brunei rule respectively, sometimes contribute.

At its worst, the air pollution has brought health
problems, interfered with transportation, and closed schools,
offices and businesses across a wide swathe of Southeast Asia.

In 1997 and 1998, two of the worst haze years, the
estimated cost to regional farming, transport and tourism was
$9 billion.

Despite numerous meetings and conferences to find a
long-term solution, the problem has persisted, with discussion
and progress on the issue fading when rain or one-off
firefighting efforts make the smoke disappear until the next
dry season.