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Indonesia president orders action to fight fires

March 14, 2014

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered national and local officials on Friday to take action to control fires in peat-rich Riau province, where heavy smoke has threatened people’s health and disrupted air flights.

National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said the president gave officials three weeks to complete the operation, which includes firefighting, health treatment and law enforcement.

“All have to work all-out. This is a war-like battle,” Nugroho said in a statement.

He added that a Hercules C-130 with five tons of cloud-seeding materials was dispatched Friday, while other planes would follow to douse the fires.

The central government earlier dispatched planes for cloud seeding and water bombing, along with more than 2,500 soldiers, police and rescuers.

The order came as the Washington-based World Resources Institute warned that fires in Indonesia have spiked higher than during a haze emergency last year.

The institute, which tracks tree cover change and fires, detected 3,101 “high confidence” fire alerts on Sumatra island using NASA’s Active Fire Data from Feb. 20 through March 11, exceeding the 2,643 fire alerts from last June 13 to June 30, the peak of last year’s haze crisis.

Brush and forest fires have raged in recent weeks, forcing the closure of schools and the cancellation of flights.

More than 55,400 people have suffered various ailments due to the haze, including 48,390 with acute respiratory infections, local health office chief Zaenal Arifin said Friday.

Riko Kurniawan of Indonesia’s largest environmental group, Walhi, said lax enforcement of laws against companies responsible for setting fires to clear land was partly to blame for the crisis.

“Last year we reported 117 companies but only eight were named suspects, and only one of them was put on trial,” Kurniawan said. “The situation is deteriorating and threatening 5.5 million people who every day inhale the unhealthy air.”

National police spokesman Col. Agus Riyanto said police have identified 40 suspects, of whom 27 have been arrested.

Slash-and-burn practices destroy huge areas of Indonesian forest every summer during the dry season, creating haze that angers surrounding countries, causing massive economic losses and contributing to the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, the third largest in the world.

The fires are often set to clear land for farming, corporate development or oil palm plantations.

Update hourly