PEKANBARU, Indonesia (Reuters) - The number of forest fires raging in Indonesia’s Sumatra island has increased, with wind blowing choking smoke over parts of Malaysia and slashing visibility, officials said on Friday.
The fires are a regular occurrence during the dry season in areas such as Sumatra and Borneo, but the situation has deteriorated in the last decade, with timber and plantation firms often blamed for deliberately starting fires to clear land.
The worst haze hit in 1997-98, when drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon led to major Indonesian fires. The smoke spread to Singapore, Malaysia and south Thailand and cost more than $9 billion in damage to tourism, transport and farming.
Risks for another bad period appear to have risen with the prospect of a return of El Nino this year.
An Indonesian official said 47 hotspots were recorded in Riau province in Sumatra by Thursday based on satellite surveillance, and temperatures were abnormally high at 35 degrees C (95 F).
“There is a potential for the number of fire spots to rise and haze conditions to worsen if there is no rain,” said Blucer Dolok Saribu, head of the meteorology, climatology and geophysics agency in Riau’s provincial capital of Pekanbaru.
The haze is likely to remain a threat until August at least. The rainy season usually begins in September.
The city, which frequently suffers from haze, had been shrouded in unpleasant yellowy, smoke earlier this week, although by Friday visibility had improved after some rains.
Rahmad Tauladani, a meteorological analyst in Pekanbaru, said wind had blown the haze over neighboring Malaysia, but said that no flights had been canceled so far, with visibility of 6,000 meters, above the minimum to allow flights of 1,000 meters.
In Malaysia, the haze had reduced visibility in some areas surrounding the capital Kuala Lumpur to as low as 5,000 meters, the Department of Environment (DOE) said.
Two out of 51 areas in the country monitored by the department recorded air readings that were unhealthy.
“We are monitoring the situation. We will decide later if any action should be taken,” the DOE’s Director-General Rosnani Ibrahim told Reuters by telephone.
Spurred on by the 1997-98 fires, Southeast Asian countries signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002, but Indonesia has yet to ratify the pact.
It is illegal to carry out slash-and-burn land clearing in Indonesia, but prosecutions take time and few have stuck.
Weather expert Tauladani said the current high temperatures had increased the risk that fires could spread to peatland areas.
Environmentalists are particularly concerned over an increasing trend toward converting peatland forests.
Once these areas are drained, peat soil is highly flammable, producing more smoke and carbon emissions than other soil types. Indonesia’s neighbors have been frustrated by Jakarta’s failure to stop the annual fires.
Indonesia has identified the ASEAN haze pact as one of six “crucial” bills that should be passed before the current session of parliament expires at the end of September.
But with politicians distracted by the July 8 presidential election, it is unclear whether there will be time in the current parliamentary term to pass it. The pact calls for signatories to work together on monitoring and combating haze.
Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia in Jakarta and Julie Goh in Kuala Lumpur; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Bill Tarrant
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