Indonesian fires worsen, Singapore smog sets record

Tourists in masks and sunglasses take a picture at Singapore's Merlion as air pollution returned to 'unhealthy' levels from the 'hazardous' levels of a few hours earlier Friday, June 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Joseph Nair)

JAKARTA: Indonesia deployed military planes Friday to fight forest fires that blanketed neighboring Singapore in record levels of hazardous smog for a third day in one of Southeast Asia’s worst air-pollution crises. As Singaporeans donned face masks and pulled children from playgrounds and Malaysia closed schools in the south, the deliberately lit fires grew bigger in some areas. Whipped up by winds, the blazes added to fears over health problems and diplomatic tension in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“The winds are picking up and the weather isn’t very good at the moment, so the fires in some places are getting bigger,” said Gunawan, a firefighter who like many Indonesians goes by one name. “We are working as hard as possible to control the fires ... but we’re facing difficult conditions.”

Indonesia blamed eight companies, including Jakarta-based PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology and Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL), for the fires. The government, which said it would take action against any company responsible for the disaster, is expected to name the rest of the firms Saturday.

An APRIL statement said the company and third-party suppliers had a “strict no-burn policy” for all concessions in Indonesia.

Illegal burning on Indonesia’s Sumatra island typically takes place in the June to September dry season to clear space for palm oil plantations. This year’s fires are unusually widespread and the haze is the worst in Singapore’s history.

Singapore’s government has warned it could last weeks.

Indonesia has earmarked around 200 billion rupiah ($20 million) to handle the disaster. Seven military aircraft were deployed for water bombings and rain seeding.

Hospitals in Dumai and Bengkalis in Indonesia’s Riau province recorded increases in cases of asthma, lung, eye and skin problems, health official Arifin Zainal said.

The Dumai airport remained closed for a third day.

In Singapore, the number of residents wearing face masks rose markedly as the pollution standards index climbed to a new record of 401 at midday, a level which health authorities consider potentially life-threatening for the elderly. The PSI moderated later to an “unhealthy” 142 by mid-evening.

“Basically, what a ‘hazardous’ PSI level means is that the pollution will cause damage to the lining of the breathing tube,” said Dr. Kenneth Chan, consultant respiratory physician at Singapore’s Gleneagles Medical Centre. “If the lining of the breathing tube is damaged, it will make the patient more vulnerable to various infections.”

The dirty, acrid haze has slashed visibility and shrouded many of Singapore’s towering landmarks, forcing airports to take extra precautions, the military to reduce outdoor training and some food businesses to suspend delivery services. Elderly residents, children and pregnant women have been advised to avoid all outdoor activity.

Plagued by the stifling smell of burning vegetation that crept even into homes and offices in this wealthy city-state, residents flocked to pharmacies to buy the protective face masks after Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged people to remain indoors as much as possible.

“I don’t know if it’s just my imagination but even indoors, my throat is starting to feel weird,” said business manager Tan Joa-Quim. “I want a mask but my company has a limited supply, which we prioritized for the older and less healthy staff, and a lot of shops have sold out.”

In neighboring Malaysia, officials shut nearly 600 schools Friday in southern districts near Singapore. Most of Malaysia was not as badly affected, though two southernmost towns recorded hazardous air quality.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 22, 2013, on page 9.




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