Indonesia — Thanks to heavy rainfall, Indonesia may have turned the corner in battling mass forest fires that have blanketed much of Southeast Asia in toxic haze, but more rain will be needed in the coming days to get the blazes under control, a senior government minister said Wednesday.
Torrential rains overnight on Tuesday in the regions of Sumatra and Kalimantan where forest fires have been raging for weeks, sickening hundreds of thousands of people have significantly reduced the size and number of fires, said Luhut B. Pandjaitan, Indonesias coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.
I hope we have turned the corner, he said in an interview. If the rain continues over the next five days, we are past this.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Agency for Disaster Management in Indonesia, said visibility and air quality had improved since Monday in affected areas. Continue reading the main story
He said the number of hot spots, areas where satellite imagery shows heavy forest fires, had dropped to 291 on Wednesday from 1,578 on Monday because of the heavy rains.
This is significant. Its much better now, Mr. Sutopo said, but he added that air quality in some affected areas continued to be measured as unhealthy.
Some scientists had feared that the fires and haze could last through the end of the year. The crisis began in late August when fires were set to clear land for palm oil plantations and other agricultural uses. While this has been occurring for decades, an especially long dry season this year coupled with the effects of El Niño threaten to make the fires and haze the worst on record, according to scientists.
Mr. Luhut, who has been appointed by Indonesias president to oversee the crisis, said more rain was forecast for the coming days, although not every day, in southern Sumatra and most of Kalimantan, also known as Indonesian Borneo.
Its too early to tell, but if the rain comes again tomorrow and the next, then 75 percent of the fires will be stopped, he said.
Seventeen Indonesian civilians have died from respiratory illnesses caused by the haze, as well as one firefighter in an operational accident, Mr. Luhut said.
Indonesia has deployed 2,000 army soldiers and 500 police officers to Sumatra and Kalimantan to help local fire crews battle the blazes. The government is also using airplanes and helicopters to drop water and fire retardants.
President Joko Widodo of Indonesia cut short by one day an official visit to the United States this week so he could return home to tour affected areas. He was scheduled to visit South Sumatra Province on Thursday.
Firefighting and commercial aircraft were able to land thanks to better visibility on Wednesday morning in Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan Province, and Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra, where flights had been canceled for days, Mr. Luhut said.
The Indonesian government has set up shelters containing air purifiers for families with infants who want to evacuate their homes for health reasons.
Mr. Luhut said that less than 100 people took up the offer in Sumatra and that on Wednesday there were no new arrivals at shelters there or in Kalimantan.
In the early weeks of the crisis, Indonesia was criticized by its neighbors, including Singapore and Malaysia, where haze has blanketed parts of those countries, as well as southern Thailand and the southern Philippines.
Asked if the Indonesian government had mishandled the crisis in its earlier weeks, Mr. Luhut said the countrys one mistake was in approving palm oil concessions on 14.8 million acres of peatlands during the past decade, which when drained and burned to clear land for agriculture emit high levels of carbon dioxide into the air.