KUALA LUMPUR/JAKARTA, Feb 25 (Reuters) – Smoke from forest fires shrouded Southeast Asian cities in thick haze on Friday, stirring memories of a choking pall that blanketed the region almost a decade ago.
Hundreds of fires have burnt for days in parched forests across Malaysia, the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Singapore, razing more than 80 square km (21,250 acres) in Malaysia alone.
The haze is less severe than the thick blanket of forest-fire smoke that descended on the region in 1997 and 1998 and cost an estimated $9 billion in damage to farming, tourism and transport.
But it has caused flight delays and temporary closure of schools in Sumatra and prompted official warnings of unhealthy levels of air pollution in several parts of Malaysia.
The island nation of Singapore is also living beneath a blanket of haze as it fights its worst outbreak of bushfires and suffers its driest spell in 29 years.
Governments have urged people not to light fires or discard burning cigarette butts, pointing out that forests are tinder dry after weeks of abnormally hot, dry weather. Dams are drying up, leaving some fire-fighters with little water to work with.
“The public has to be careful,” Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told reporters in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, where it is impossible to see the horizon even from office towers.
Hundreds of Malaysian fire-fighters are battling the blazes, but they face an especially difficult task in areas where forest peat has caught fire. These mounds of rotted vegetation can smoulder for weeks, sparking off fresh outbreaks.
Almost 600 fires have broken out in Indonesia’s Riau province and others have also flared in North Sumatra and Aceh province, said Hermono Sigit of Indonesia’s Environmental Supervisory Agency. Aceh was devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunami.
In Singapore, more than 400 bushfires have broken out this month, driving its Pollutants Standards Index (PSI), which measures air quality, out of the good range in recent days.
The PSI, normally at 30 to 45 this time of year, is at a high for the year of 56. Air quality is considered unhealthy when the index exceeds 100.
Fire-fighters have battled 512 bush fires since Jan. 1, more than for all of 2004, Singapore’s Civil Defence Force said