JAKARTA – Rain over Indonesia’s Sumatra island yesterday cleared smog from fires in Riau province, allowing residents to see a clear, blue sky for the first time since last week, government officials said. “The rain has washed away the smog. The sky is clear today,” said an official at state-run environmental impact assessment agency in the Riau provincial capital of Pekanbaru, about 935 km (560 miles) northwest of Jakarta.
But experts at a fire detection project elsewhere in Sumatra warned that this might be a temporary respite and more fires and smoke were likely if dry weather returned.
The area around Pekanbaru was the worst affected by the smog, which has also drifted east to Singapore and peninsular Malaysia.
“The weather is much better today. People do not have to wear masks,” another official said.
Sumatra residents were forced to wear masks last week to keep out the choking smog from forest fires, which also hit Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo island.
Experts say they have largely been caused by plantation firms trying to clear forest land, although small farmers using slash and burn agriculture have also been blamed.
A top official at an EU-funded satellite fire detection project said the rain almost certainly did not mean the problem was finished for this year.
“It means it is temporarily going away,” said Rod Bowen, project leader of the Forest Fires Prevention and Control Project in Palembang city.
“As soon as the weather gets dry the burning will resume in Riau. That is the history over the past two or three years in Riau. They tend to burn at every opportunity.
“It will almost certainly return if there is another dry period and the wind drops a bit.”
Experts have predicted the fires and smog could stay for two to three months.
The fires have sent a pall of smog to Singapore and peninsular Malaysia, raising concerns about a repeat of the thick smog which engulfed the region in 1997 and hit tourism.
The fires of 1997 were widely blamed on the drought induced by the El Nino weather pattern. But experts said El Nino, which is due to return next year, could not be blamed for the fire this time and in stark contrast many parts of Asia suffered floods.
An official at Indonesia’s directorate-general of forest protection in Bogor, about 60 km (40 miles) south of Jakarta, said satellite images showed that 15 hot spots were recorded on Tuesday. Some 200 were detected last week.
But the official added that the decline might be partly caused by cloud cover hampering satellite imagery. Each hotspot represents an area of fire measuring at least one square kilometre.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said it had brought forward by two months a meeting to tackle the smog. ASEAN ministers had originally agreed they would next meet in Singapore in October.
Indonesian President B.J. Habibie last Monday called for action to stop the forest fires and warned of an environmental disaster if the problem was left unchecked.