Indonesia mobilizes to combat health-damaging forest fires

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Four Indonesian provinces have declared emergencies in anticipation of worsening forest fires that each year spread health-damaging haze across much of Southeast Asia.

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency said Wednesday that emergency alerts in Riau and South Sumatra provinces on the island of Sumatra and West and Central Kalimantan on Borneo will make it easier to mobilize fire-fighting operations and support from the central government.

The agency said satellites have detected 90 "hotspots" or fires across Indonesia, with the biggest numbers in West and Central Kalimantan. Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan province, has been blanketed in smoke, it said.

Record Indonesian forest fires in 2015 spread haze across a swath of Southeast Asia and, according to a study by Harvard and Columbia universities, hastened 100,000 deaths.

Fires are often started by smallholders and plantation companies to clear land for planting. Many areas of Indonesia are prone to rapid burning because of the draining of swampy peatland forests for pulp wood and palm oil plantations.

Pontianak resident Reinardo Sinaga said rain in the past few days reduced the choking smoke that had affected the city for the previous two weeks.

He said haze from peat and forest fires shortened visibility in the streets to around 20 to 25 meters (66 to 82 feet) and caused respiratory problems for many residents.

"Thanks to heavy rains in the past days that helped us," Sinaga said. "We hope authorities are able to crack down on the forest burners."

Disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said its personnel as well as soldiers, police, businesses and volunteers were involved in the fire-fighting effort.

Indonesia has declared a moratorium on new development of peatlands and has a plan, still to be implemented, to restore drained peat swamps by "re-wetting" them — a technical and expensive undertaking that involves damming the canals that were constructed to drain them.

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