JAKARTA — Heavy rains and an international firefighting effort on Indonesia’s Sumatra have extinguished most forest fires that had spewed choking haze over parts of the island and neighbouring Malaysia, officials said on Monday.
Smoke from the fires on Sumatra island blanketed parts of peninsular Malaysia — including its capital city, Kuala Lumpur — in recent weeks, prompting the country to send firefighters to Sumatra last week.
Singapore, another Indonesia neighbour, also sent fire teams.
“Heavy rains on Saturday made the total number of hotspots decline. On August 21, it was reported that there were only 28. Everything is going back to normal now,” Eviarni, an official from the envirommental supervisory agency in Sumatra’s Riau province, told Reuters.
More than 100 hotspots — areas satellites show as having fires — could be seen at the height of the haze.
Residents in Riau province, hardest hit by the fires and home to some of the world’s major palm oil plantations, were no longer required to wear face masks, she added.
The foreign firefighters had contributed to putting out the blazes, Yusman, another official from the environmental agency in Rokan Hillir, at the epicentre of the worst fires, told Reuters.
“All parties have done their job well. The rain helped to finish the job we have done. The Malaysian and Singapore fire squads are still here. They were really helpful,” Yusman added.
Acrid smoke from fires deliberately lit on Sumatra to clear land for agriculture, had once again tested ties among the Southeast Asian neighbours after the smoke caused Malaysia’s worst pollution crisis in eight years.
Malaysia sent 128 firemen to help douse the flames, and Singapore 56, according to officials. Australia reportedly planned to send a team of 12 bushfire experts.
Malaysia complains Indonesia has yet to ratify a regional agreement aimed at controlling forest fires in Southeast Asia, while Indonesians blame Malaysian-owned palm-oil plantations both in Indonesia and in Malaysia for contributing to the haze.
Malaysia is the biggest producer of palm oil and, during drier weather at this time of year, plantation owners sometimes flout bans on open burning to clear land to plant new trees.
Singapore, which has extensive economic interests in Indonesia, has also been pulled into the blame game on occasion.
The haze tends to be an annual problem but its intensity varies with the severity of the dry season and wind patterns. Fires on Borneo island, parts of which are under Indonesian, Malaysian and Brunei rule respectively, sometimes contribute.
At its worst, the air pollution has brought health problems, interfered with transportation, and closed schools, offices and businesses across a wide swathe of Southeast Asia.
In 1997 and 1998, two of the worst haze years, the estimated cost to regional farming, transport and tourism was $9 billion.
Despite numerous meetings and conferences to find a long-term solution, the problem has persisted, with discussion and progress on the issue fading when rain or one-off firefighting efforts make the smoke disappear until the next dry season.