For the first time in three weeks, Pekanbaru residents breathed fresh air on Saturday after six hours of heavy rain cleared thick haze that had blanketed parts of Riau, disrupting flights and forcing schools to close. Earlier, Pekanbaru authorities said the haze on Friday was the thickest they had recorded, with visibility reduced from 300 meters to 600 m to under 200 m. “Thank God for the rain. Now we don’t have to wear masks when we go outside,” said Ira Tania, a Rintis resident. Visibility has returned to normal, at two kilometers, allowing residents to return to their routine activities, and the haze is no longer disrupting flights at Sultan Syarif Kasim II Airport. “This morning, everything has returned to normal, flights are taking off as scheduled. Hopefully, these conditions will be maintained in the coming days,” head of the air traffic operation division at the airport Joko Bidianto, said on Saturday.
Although the haze has cleared, some schools were still closed on Saturday as teaching staff had already told the students to stay home until Monday. “On Friday, the schools announced the students could have two days off. We didn’t expect the haze to clear up today, but it’s impossible to suddenly change the announcement,” said Rizal, a staff member of SMUN 2 senior high school in Pekanbaru. A limited number of schools remained open, like SMU Alhadu senior high school. “We think the haze does not really endanger students’ health, so we didn’t send them home,” said staff member Ahmad. He acknowledged the school’s decision was against the instructions of Pekanbaru Major Herman Abdullah, who ordered schools in the city to close and advised parents to keep their children indoors. Ahmad said that allowing the students to stay home only encouraged them to play outdoors, such as playing soccer or riding their bicycles. “If they’re at school, we can prevent them from going outside, but during holidays, they play everywhere,” he said.
An AP report on Saturday said that raging forest fires have caused air quality to plummet to unhealthy levels in Malaysia’s capital for the first time in eight years. Around 8,600 hectares of forests and undergrowth are burning in Johor, Pahang, Selangor, Perak, Kedah and Kelantan states, media has reported. More than 2,000 firefighters have been deployed to douse the fires, which started during a heat wave in mid-February. While no lives or property have been lost in the fires, air quality has suffered. The Department of Environment’s Air Pollution Index readings in Kuala Lumpur and several nearby areas, including the administrative capital Putrajaya, were at unhealthy levels, a department official said.
Kuala Lumpur last saw its air quality plunge to those levels in 1997, when much of Southeast Asia was enveloped in haze from forest fires in neighboring Sumatra, Indonesia. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has directed the relevant authorities to inform the public of the poor air quality, the national news agency Bernama reported. “The people should be advised to take precautionary measures so as not to cause hardship to them,” Abdullah said. “This is particularly important for asthma sufferers.” He told journalists in Tanjung Malim, a town 40 kilometers north of Kuala Lumpur, he could not come there by helicopter due to the haze. He had to travel by car instead. According to the Meteorological Department, visibility at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport was down to two kilometers on Saturday afternoon from the normal 10 kilometers. However, there were no reports of flight disruptions.