Indonesia ‘doing everything’ to put out forest fires, says Widodo

Indonesian President Joko Widodo says nearly 6,000 troops have been sent to hotspots to help put out fires. (Bernama pic)

JAKARTA: Indonesia is battling forest fires causing toxic haze across Southeast Asia with aircraft, artificial rain and even prayer, President Joko Widodo said during a visit to a hard-hit area today.

“We have made every effort,” he said during a visit to Riau province in central Sumatra.

Widodo said nearly 6,000 troops had been sent to hotspots to help put out fires.

As well as firefighters on the ground, dozens of aircraft were being used to seed clouds and bomb blazes with water, he said.

“We have also prayed,” he added, after a visit to Amrulloh Mosque in Pekanbaru.

Forest fires are raging on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, sending smoke across the region, including towards neighbours Malaysia and Singapore.

The toxic smoke caused by open burning to clear land for plantations is an annual problem for Indonesia and its neighbours, but has been worsened this year by particularly dry weather.

Authorities on Monday said they had arrested nearly 200 people suspected of being involved in activities that led to the out-of-control fires.

Four corporations were also being investigated, authorities said.

The Asean meteorological agency said today the number of hotspots had stabilised, but a thick haze continued to cloak the region.

On Borneo island, which Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei, pollution levels were “hazardous”, according to environment ministry data. Hundreds of schools across Indonesia were shut.

In Peninsular Malaysia, the meteorological office and the Royal Malaysian Air Force were working together to seed clouds with chemicals in the hope that rainfall would clear the haze.

But hundreds of schools were closed today, affecting more than 350,000 students.

Air quality was at “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy’ levels in many parts of Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak.

Sri Aman in Sarawak hit a “hazardous” reading of 367 on the air pollutant index (API), the highest recorded since the current spell of haze began.

Air quality improved in Singapore and was in the “moderate” range after slipping to “unhealthy” levels over the weekend, officials there said.