Published: Wednesday 15 April 1998

The forest fires in Indonesia show no signs of abating. Up to 1,000 fires are blazing at present. The situation is set to worsen as the drought drags on. ( Down To Earth , Vol 6, No1)

Officials say that the fires have been lit by farmers and plantation and timber firms, sending sparks of hot ash across the province's rugged jungle and forest canopy to start fresh blazes elsewhere. "It is much worse than last year and is getting worse," said Hartmut Abberger, of the German-funded Integrated Forest Fire Management Project in Sumarinda. Fire fighters say that around 3,000 hectares were razed in Bukit Suharto, or Suharto Hill, over the past two weeks after a farmer apparently lit a fire to clear land for peppercorn field.

Visibility in the major coastal oil city of Balikpapan has been reduced to just a few hundred metres, forcing disruption to some flights, airports officials said. Pedestrians and motor-cyclists donned masks as the smoke thickened in the city, some 125 km south of the provincial capital of Sumarinda.

Residents and officials allege that the fires were deliberately lit by farmers but had got out of control in the hot and dry conditions amid a prolonged drought. Large fires were also raging in the Bukit Suharto forest area. These flames were dangerously close to the main highway linking Balikpapan and Sumarinda.

The drought and the fire have also reduced the flow of fresh water in the Mahakam river and its tributaries, dramatically lowering their levels and endangering some 200 freshwater dolphins.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Programme, Integrated Forest Fire Management Project and other non-governmental organisations plan to begin a short intensive training course for a 1,000-strong combined force of troops and civilians to check these fires.

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