PEKANBARU, INDONESIA – Fires in Indonesia’s rainforests have jumped sharply, satellite data show, spreading smog across Southeast Asia and adding to concerns about how the rise in wildfire outbreaks worldwide is affecting global warming.
Illegal blazes to clear land for agricultural plantations have been raging on Sumatra and Borneo islands, with Indonesia deploying water-bombing helicopters and thousands of security forces to tackle them.
Indonesia’s outbreak is just the latest — huge blazes have torn through the Amazon rainforest in South America while fires are sweeping across eastern Australia in an unusually ferocious and early start to the continent’s wildfire season.
Indonesia’s forest fires are an annual problem that has been worsened this year by particularly dry weather. In recent days the fires have sent toxic smog floating over Malaysia, triggering a diplomatic row.
The number of “hot spots” — areas of intense heat detected by satellite that indicate a high chance of fire — jumped sharply in Indonesia on Wednesday, according to the Singapore-based ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre.
There were 1,619 hot spots detected on the Indonesian parts of Borneo and Sumatra on Thursday, up from 861 a day earlier, according to a tally from the center, which monitors forest fires and smog outbreaks.
In hard-hit Riau province on Sumatra, firefighters were battling around the clock through charred forests as they sought to extinguish blazes causing thick white smog, reporters said.
The provincial capital Pekanbaru was blanketed in dense smoke, leaving the sky dark even at midday. Residents sought to go about their daily lives as usual, with many wearing only rudimentary face masks.
Hundreds of people held a mass prayer for rain in the city on Friday. Around 1,000 residents — many dressed in white Muslim robes with rudimentary face masks — held a prayer in an open field as an acrid fog drifted around them.
“I’m praying so that the rain will come immediately and this smog will be gone soon,” said retired 57-year-old civil servant Rahmad, who goes by one name. “It’s been really bad for the past month — I can’t breathe if I don’t wear a mask. Some of my neighbors have gotten really sick.”
Authorities closed the city’s main airport on Friday due to poor visibility caused by the smoke. Airport official Yogi Prasetyo said some flights managed to land before noon but many airlines postponed flights due to the fluctuating visibility, which at times was just 300 meters.
Kiki Taufik, a forests campaigner with Greenpeace in Indonesia, said there has been little rain in the past fortnight, particularly on Indonesian Borneo, which saw the sharpest increase in hot spots.
Borneo is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
Taufik saw similarities between the blazes in Indonesia and those in the Amazon, where farmers also start fires to clear land for agriculture.
“This should remind people we are facing a climate crisis,” he said of the multiple fires worldwide.
“Industries are looking to expand plantations using fires.”
And he warned Indonesia’s blazes would add to the sprawling archipelago’s climate-damaging emissions, already among the highest in the world. In 2015 Indonesia suffered its worst forest fires in about two decades, which dramatically increased its greenhouse gas emissions.
Diplomatic tensions were also rising as Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin accused her Indonesian counterpart of being “in denial” after Jakarta insisted fires in Malaysia had caused the smog there.
“Let the data speak for itself,” she said in a Facebook post, indicating figures from the ASEAN center, which showed only a handful of hot spots in Malaysia compared with hundreds in Indonesia.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will write to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to raise concerns about the haze, she said.
Indonesian Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar hit back Wednesday, saying that “hot spots are not only found in Indonesia, but also in Sarawak (on Malaysian Borneo) and peninsular Malaysia.”
“We are not standing idly by,” she added.
Indonesian personnel have been struggling to tame the blazes as many are burning underground in carbon-rich peat, which has been cleared across vast areas of the country for plantations. After cleared and drained of water, peat is highly combustible and hard to extinguish once ablaze.
There have been some outbreaks in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Drone footage taken in the area showed smoke rising from charcoal gray patches of smoldering earth, surrounded by pristine forest.