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Indonesian schools close, air quality plunges in Malaysia as brush fires worsen

Indonesian schools close, air quality plunges in Malaysia as brush fires worsen

Smoke from raging Indonesian brush fires shut schools Friday and dragged air quality to "unhealthy" levels in much of nearby Malaysia, including in its largest city Kuala Lumpur and other tourist and business centers.
Firefighters in Indonesia said they were battling the illegally set land-clearing blazes 24 hours a day, while students handed out masks to protect residents from the acrid haze that has darkened skies over 215,000 square miles (557,000 square kilometers) of land.
"The conditions here are awful, really gloomy," said Sugeng, a restaurant worker in Pontianak, a hard-hit town in Indonesia's portion of Borneo island.
Schools in the city closed on government orders, said Sugeng, who uses just one name.
Farmers or agricultural companies set the fires on Borneo and Indonesia's Sumatra island as a cheap way to clear land for plantations, mostly for palm oil, during the region's annual midyear dry season.
They are often on peat land, making them hard to extinguish.
Only three of Malaysia's 51 air quality monitoring stations reported clean air Friday. Pollution levels hit officially designated "unhealthy" levels at 15 stations, including those in the capital, Putrajaya, nearby Kuala Lumpur and the tourist city of Malacca.
Singapore's Meteorological Services Division detected nearly 200 hotspots _ large, intensely hot areas indicating fires _ and moderate to heavy smoke on Sumatra and parts of Borneo by late Thursday, according to satellite images on its Web site.
The worst case of smoke-induced haze in Southeast Asia occurred in 1997-98. It blanketed much of the region and was blamed for losses of nearly US$9 billion in tourism, health and business.
Indonesia's cash-strapped government defended its anti-fire efforts amid criticism from Malaysian opposition lawmakers, and from residents forced to live in the gloom for weeks at a time.
"We are doing what we can, including cloud-seeding, but the problem is there are too many hotspots," said Hoetomo, deputy minister for environmental compliance. "Indonesia is a large country and the haze just hangs in the sky. We are hoping that rain will pour heavily soon."


Updated : 2021-06-14 12:04 GMT+08:00