From: Associated Press
Published August 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Indonesia Says Haze-Causing Fires Mostly Out -- But Underground Blazes Threaten Tigers

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Nearly all of the Indonesian brush fires that blanketed neighboring Malaysia with acrid, choking smoke have been put out, but underground fires are still burning in peat soil, Indonesia said.


"All areas where the fire happened due to land clearing activities ... can be said to have already been extinguished," private radio station El Shinta quoted Forestry Minister Malem Sambat Kaban as saying Sunday. "The number of hotspots there can be said to be zero -- by ignoring five or six small ones."


However, a local official said a sanctuary for tigers is threatened by underground fires still smoldering in peat lands in the same area where many of the brush fires had burned on Indonesia's Sumatra island.


About 1,200 firefighters were trying to extinguish the underground blazes beneath about 20,000 hectares (49,420 acres) of peat lands in Rokan Hilir district of Riau province on Sumatra, said Chairul Zaenal of the local environmental controlling office in Riau's capital, Pekanbaru.


Zaenal said the peat fires threaten a nearby 60,000-hectare (148,260-acre) conservation zone for Sumatran tigers, as well as a protected forest.


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The Indonesian brush fires -- mostly set as a cheap but illegal way to clear land for plantations, mines and other operations -- have cloaked large parts of Malaysia, including the main city of Kuala Lumpur, with a noxious haze, sometimes pushing the air pollution level into the hazardous range.


The fires, often set during the area's annual mid-year dry season, have become a sensitive political issue between Indonesia and neighboring countries including Malaysia and Singapore, where haze from the fires has occasionally been blamed for annoyance, air traffic disruptions, health problems and damage to the crucial tourism industry.


Officials in Indonesia -- a vast archipelago struggling with poverty and corruption -- often say they cannot halt the burning due to a lack of resources and personnel.


"Demands of lands for new estates increases every year in both Riau and West Kalimantan provinces, but the commitment of our businessmen for environment is still low," Kaban told El Shinta.


Indonesia has also claimed that Malaysian plantation owners were behind some of the fires, a claim Malaysia has denied.


This year, Malaysia deployed 125 fire fighters to help fight the Sumatra blazes. Singapore has routinely helped out by providing Indonesia with satellite images of the affected areas.


Indonesia and Malaysia have agreed to lower the fire risk by starting cloud-seeding next week over Riau and North Sumatra provinces, both on Sumatra island, and in West Kalimantan on Borneo island.


Source: Associated Press


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