Indonesia province shuts schools as haze from fires returns

PALEMBANG, Indonesia (AP) – Thick, noxious haze from new deliberately set fires blanketed parts of Indonesia’s Sumatra island yesterday after days of improving air quality, causing school closings and flight delays.

National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Agus Wibowo said nearly 1,200 fires were burning, more than double the number in past weeks as authorities managed to seed clouds to induce rain in several affected areas on Sumatra and Borneo islands.

Wibowo said South Sumatra province had the largest number of detected fires, with nearly 700 hotspots, prompting authorities to shut most schools in Palembang, the province’s capital, to pro- tect children.

General Manager of Airnav Indonesia in Palembang Ari Subandri said poor visibility caused delays at the city’s main airport.

Haze from Indonesian fires, often set to clear land for planting, is an annual problem for South-east Asia.

The fires are often started by smallholders and plantation owners 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.

Wibowo said seven helicopters dropped 66 million litres of water yesterday over South Sumatra province. He said firefighting measures included 14 tonnes of salt to induce rain in anticipation of worsening fires.

This year alone, at least 52 helicopters have dropped more than 371 million litres of water and 255 tonnes of salt for cloud seeding as part of the firefighting efforts in six provinces that have declared emergencies. The provinces have a combined population of more than 23 million.

Schoolchildren make their way to school as haze from forest fires blankets Palembang. PHOTO: AFP