Space & Innovation

Indonesia Fires Choking People, Threatening Wildlife

Slash-and-burn practices combine with El Niño to create an air-pollution crisis in one of the world's most populous countries. Continue reading →

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.

Haze created by forest fires is shrouding Indonesian cities.

Nearly 30,000 firefighters and support staff were battling blazes across a handful of mainly western U.S. states, after millions of acres and multiple buildings have burned. A total of 7.16 million acres have gone up in flames across the country this year, the National Interagency Fire Center said. That's the earliest the 7 million mark has been reached in the past 20 years, it said, adding that a large portion of this was from Alaskan wildfires several months ago.

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A total of 41,194 fires were burning across the United States, Boehle said, adding that as of Tuesday, 1,074 structures had been scorched. "You'll see firefighters from all over assisting with the western wildfires," center spokeswoman Tina Boehle said, adding that personnel from the eastern seaboard to Alaska had been tapped.

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Above, the Jerusalem Fire burns at the Lake and Napa County lines after jumping north of the highway Tuesday afternoon.

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Canada has offered 100 firefighters plus other personnel and 20 "smokejumpers" who parachute in to fight the blazes. The center was also in discussion with Australia to provide assistance, she said. On Tuesday, authorities announced that the U.S. military would be sending troops.

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Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said 200 troops from Washington state would receive three days' training before heading out to confront the infernos.

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A heatwave exacerbating four years of drought is also making California vulnerable. A total of 41,194 fires were burning across the United States, Boehle said, adding that as of Tuesday, 1,074 structures had been scorched.

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In California, dry lightning strikes sparked most of the fires, while the causes of others remained unknown. But authorities said they did not suspect foul play. Thousands of lightning bolts since caused hundreds of smaller fires throughout the state, but most of the blazes were concentrated in the north, California fire chiefs said.

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Idaho's Soda Fire, which has been one of the largest blazes, was 90 percent contained Wednesday after burning through 283,686 acres. 

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Meanwhile since Friday, more than 1,000 firefighters have struggled with a blaze started by lightning in the Chelan, Wash., area, where at least 49 buildings have been destroyed and authorities have issued evacuations that affect some 3,000 people, the Seattle Times reported.

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The 10 states affected by large fires are Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas and Arizona, Boehle said. The northwest quadrant -- Washington and Oregon -- is the center's "highest priority," she said. "The last couple of years have been unusual in the Northwest with reduced precipitation. We've been seeing more fires in the Northwest than usual." 

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