Historically thick haze from forest fires and burn-offs blanketed several parts of Riau on Friday, including the capital of Pekanbaru, disrupting flights and forcing schools to close. The haze from Sumatra also spread to other cities in the region, sparking fears that the thick, hazardous “pea-souper” smog would increase to the extreme levels experienced in 1997. The authorities in Pekanbaru said the haze on Friday was thickest they had ever measured. Visibility reduced from 300 to 600 meters to under 200 meters, virtually shutting down the Sultan Syarif Kasim II Airport in Pekanbaru. “The visibility is only 200 meters. It is the thickest haze so far,” said Joko Budianto, the chief of the air-traffic operation division at the airport.
Fearing ill effect from the haze on school children the Pekanbaru government ordered schools shut down in the city on Friday and advised parents to keep their children indoors. “The students will return to schools only after the haze has lifted,” Pekanbaru Mayor Herman Abdullah said. However, many students ignored the advice and were seen playing soccer in local fields. Others rode motorcycles or wandered aimlessly in packs around the city’s thoroughfares in traffic slowed down by the haze. A Reuters report on Friday said smoke from forest fires was shrouding other Southeast Asian cities, 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, Singapore and Sumatra, razing more than 80 square kilometers 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 US$9 billion in damage to farming, tourism and transport. But it has prompted official warnings of unhealthy levels of air pollution in several parts of Malaysia. 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. “The public has to be careful,” Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in Kuala Lumpur, where it is impossible to see the horizon even from office towers.