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Smoke hangs over Indonesia as fires burn out of control

August 28, 1997

PALANGKARAYA, Indonesia (AP) _ A jetliner breaks through the swirling brown haze 200 feet above ground. The pilot catches his first glimpse of the runway _ and realizes he’s badly off course.

He aborts his landing attempt just in time and disappears back into the smoky clouds created by fires on the ground to try again later.

Hundreds of forest and brush fires _ many deliberately lit during annual land clearings _ have been burning fiercely across parts of Indonesia during months of drought. They could get worse, experts believe, when El Nino strikes.

A phenomenon that recurs about every three to five years, El Nino produces climate abnormalities around the world, ranging from crippling droughts and fires to floods, severe storms and hurricanes.

Experts say the El Nino developing now will bring very severe weather to many parts of the world, including Indonesia, where additional droughts and fires are expected.

The dry spell so far has devastated harvests of rice, coffee and other crops. Planting has been delayed this month, raising fears of food shortages in some parts.

Enormous volumes of smoke have closed airports, stranding thousands of passengers. Pollution in the traffic-choked national capital, Jakarta, is thicker than normal.

Winds have blown the problem east and north across neighboring Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia, where schools stopped sports programs due to poor air quality.

Indonesia’s Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja says at least 39,500 acres have been blackened.

``Those are just the reported fires. I’m sure the number is higher than that,″ he said.

There are hopes the monsoons, due in October, will drench the flames. But if rain doesn’t fall soon, Sarwono said, the fires could rival those of 1982, when about 7.4 million acres, about the size of Belgium, was razed at a cost of $300 million.

One of the worst-hit areas is Kalimantan on Borneo.

``There are thousands of hectares (acres) on fire. We have only two fire engines and a severe water shortage because of the drought,″ said one city official.

The smoke is everywhere, and cars must crawl along the main road at midday with headlights on. Patients with respiratory complaints and eye irritations cram local clinics and hospitals.

While residents say the burnings are an annual event, things are much worse this year. No one has seen blue sky in months.

Slash-and-burn agriculture has been used by the indigenous Dayak people for centuries. Tribal farmers cut down trees and burn patches of forest to make room for food gardens. The gardens are usually abandoned after one or two seasons when the soil loses its fertility.

Thousands of farmers and plantation owners are also starting fires to clear land needed to grow rice for Indonesia’s 200 million people. Lumber companies wanting to clear forests already heavily logged do the same.

The fires go on even though the government has banned the practice. President Suharto has said forest fires will bring ``misery″ to local people, and scores of houses and farms have been damaged or abandoned.

Running with two buckets of water, a villager outside Palangkaraya tries desperately to contain flames threatening his house that were set by a neighbor wanting to clear his field.

Surrounded by swirling smoke, his 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son run back and forth with cups and jugs of water, screaming in delight as they sprinkle the flames, oblivious to the danger.

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