The Heat Is Online

Indonesia Choked By Fire-Driven Haze

Indonesia calls fires a national disaster

Reuters News Service

PEKANBARU, March 9, 2000 - Indonesia yesterday called the forest fires raging in Sumatra island a national disaster and warned logging firms could lose their licenses if they had deliberately started the burning.

Hundreds of fires are scorching forests in Sumatra's Riau province and in West Kalimantan and there are fears of a repeat of the 1997 jungle blazes which engulfed neighbouring Singapore and parts of Malaysia in thick smoke.

"It's a national disaster," Environment Minister Soni Keraf told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

The government "will summon owners of logging and plantation companies for investigation. If mistakes are found, their licences will be revoked," he said. Hundreds of fires have been spotted in the two provinces.

Worst hit is Riau province - which faces Singapore across the Malacca Strait - and the local capital Pekanbaru had dangerously high levels of smog which cast a thin, choking veil over the oil town, locals said.

They said visibility is around 500 metres (yards) during the day, adding that much of the burning was underground, making it difficult to extinguish the fires.

The worst fires for many years were in 1997, and they spewed smog into the region, causing widespread health problems and damaging tourism.

The dry season trigger for the fires has just started in parts of Sumatra, one of the world's largest islands and home to dense jungle and huge palm oil, rubber and coffee plantations.

The Sumatran Environmental Supervisory Agency accused palm oil plantations in the island province of Riau of deliberately starting the fires there. Ardi Yusuf of the agency's forestry division told Reuters the agency had video tapes of fires in the plantations.

"The major fires were located in the area of Kampar and Bengkalis, around eight hours from (Riau capital) Pekanbaru... the fires were in palm plantations owned by two foreign companies. The companies were the same ones behind the fires in 1998," he said.

Locals said the air quality in Riau on Wednesday morning had improved though a thin veil of haze still blanketed the oil city.

"It's a bit hazy but I don't think a mask is needed," said one local resident.

However, Khodijah Nurhadi, from the environment agency's air monitoring division, told Reuters residents still needed to be careful. "The conditions are still very unhealthy," she said.

Tests on Tuesday showed the pollution index at up to 313 she said. A reading of over 300 is considered hazardous to health. A normal level is below 50.