If you think the wildfires in California have been bad, there are even bigger blazes on the other side of the planet. And worse yet, authorities say they were set intentionally by plantation companies.
The government of Indonesia has declared a state of emergency in some parts of the country, as forest fires set on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimatan have created a giant haze that is threatening the health of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians and people in neighboring countries as well. The smoke is also choking endangered populations of orangutans, elephants and leopards.
The Jakarta Post reports that in the province of West Sumatra, the level of particulate matter in the air had increased to 436 micrograms per cubic meter, a level that government health officials classify as "dangerous," the highest level on their pollution scale.
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In South Sumatra, more than 22,000 people have developed respiratory illnesses, New Scientist reports.
In Riau, another province, some 25,000 people have taken ill from the haze's effects.
"The smoke here bring particles that would affect your throat, so it will induce mucus and cause infection," hospital administrator Dr. Nuzellia Husnedi told Australian broadcaster ABC's website. "We're warning people not to go outside unless it's necessary, if you don't need to go outside then don't."
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As with California, fires are a normal part of the dry season in Indonesia, an archipelago that has the fourth biggest population on the planet. They're often set deliberately, in slash-and-burn operations that clear land for palm oil cultivation and, ironically, tree plantations.
But those unsustainable practices have been exacerbated this year by the unusually powerful El Niño, a mass of warm water in the Pacific that causes weather distortions all over the globe. In Indonesia, the effect has been to dry out the forests, which exacerbates the risk of fires spreading out of control.
"It's not just affecting Indonesia," Bill Laurance, a professor and fire expert at James Cook University in Australia, told New Scientist, "it's also affecting its neighbors – Singapore and Malaysia and others – who are being very disadvantaged by the smoke and carbon emissions."
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In addition, the fires now threaten national parks that include the last remaining habitats for orangutans, Sumatran elephants and clouded leopards, according to the World Resources Institute.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo is determined to take action against those responsible for the fires. Last week, the government arrested seven executives and employees of companies that it suspects of setting the fires, according to ChannelNewsAsia. If found guilty of setting illegal fires, they could face up to 15 years in prison and heavy fines. 20 more companies reportedly are under investigation.
The Guardian reported the suspects include a senior executive from Bumi Mekar Hijau, a unit of Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), which is also Indonesia's largest pulp and paper producer.