Hotspots drop in Indonesia but some haze lingers

Hotspots drop in Indonesia but some haze lingers

1 November 2006

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Indonesia — Hotspots in Indonesia, indicators of the forest and brush fires responsible for a choking haze across much of the region, have shrunk to less than half the number two weeks ago, an environment ministry official said on Wednesday.

Most of the decline came from Sumatra island, where sporadic but heavy rain has doused fires set by farmers trying to clear land for agriculture.

Thick haze still blankets areas of the Indonesian part of Borneo island, however.

The haze has affected much of Southeast Asia for months, triggering fears of a repeat of the choking situation that hit the region in 1997-98.

Indonesia’s neighbours have grown increasingly frustrated by the fires, most of which are deliberately lit by farmers or by timber and palm oil plantation companies — some owned by Singaporeans and Malaysians — to clear land for cultivation.

But recent rains have helped improve the situation, especially on Sumatra island where the haze disrupted air transport in October.

“Hotspots according to our Oct. 31 data are 19 in Sumatra areas and 77 in Kalimantan. In the third week of October we had more than 200 hotspots in Sumatra and Kalimantan,” Purwasto, head of forest fire control at the environment ministry, told Reuters

Indonesians call Borneo island Kalimantan and residents there still have to carry out daily activities amid greyish smoke.

“There has been no rain at all in Central and South Kalimantan provinces,” said Budiono, an official at Jakarta’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency.

Indonesia’s annual six-month rainy season usually starts in October and reaches its peak in January. Weather forecasts say many haze-hit areas will only get consistent rains this month.

Large amphibious planes, leased from Russia and operated by Russian pilots, have helped Indonesia douse forest fires in South Sumatra this week.

“We are water bombing areas with the Russian planes and 10 of our helicopters. We still need to do this for several more days. I hope in three or four days all hotspots (in southern Sumatra) could be put out,” said Dodi Supriadi, head of South Sumatra province’s forestry office.

The arrival of the Russian planes leased by the national disaster agency may be a bit belated for optimum effect, given the increasing rain.

However, officials said they did not want to gamble. If the rain is sporadic rather than sustained, it can actually cause more smoke on burning land — particularly peat areas where fires are hard to douse.

“If we do not it put it out, the smoke could continue to develop. The weather forecast says rain would only pour in November. So, this is not too late,” Supriadi told Reuters by phone from the South Sumatra provincial capital of Palembang, 420 km (260 miles) northwest of Jakarta.

The Russian planes had been leased for 45 days but that did not have to be covered consecutively, the environment ministry’s Purwasto said, adding they could be used in the 2007 dry season if they were not needed for the full period this year.

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