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Monday, February 16, 1998 Published at 17:02 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Water bombers tackle Indonesian fires
image: [ The smog last year caused breathing problems for many children and old people ]
The smog last year caused breathing problems for many children and old people

Indonesia has sent aircraft loaded with water bombs to try to prevent forest fires causing a repeat of last year's south east Asian haze disaster.

The Forestry Minister, Djamaluddin Suryohadikusumo, said on Monday that the number of "hot spots" on the Indonesia part of Borneo had risen to 895 by the previous evening.

"No smouldering bush fire - more like an inferno" (3'43")
This was up from 618 fires in the east Kalimantan province on Saturday, he said.

Malaysia and Brunei, which share the island with Indonesia, are worried about the prospect of the blaze spreading out of control.

[ image: The fires have consumed more than 5,000 hectares]
The fires have consumed more than 5,000 hectares
The haze caused by forest fires in the region last year took months to disperse. It caused illness and breathing difficulties for many people and was blamed for a number of air and sea accidents.

Desperate to avert a repeat of this, a quick, united southeast Asian response is intended to stop the new raging fires before they become uncontrollable.

A combination of natural and man-made factors is thought to have caused the haze crisis in Indonesia and its neighbours.

Two weeks without rain have worsened the current fires but agro-industrial techniques almost certainly started them.

[ image: Smog is also blamed for a number of accidents]
Smog is also blamed for a number of accidents
The drop in average rainfall during the monsoon season is being linked with El Niño weather currents in the Pacific Ocean.

The Jakarta Post, which said more than 5,000 hectares had been consumed by flames, quoted provincial forestry official Darminto Suteno as saying: "We do not want to have another disaster."

He added: "Many companies just use slash and burn methods in clearing their land."

This traditional practice has got out of control because of the growth of logging and plantation companies in the area, he said.

The Indonesian Government has banned land clearing by fires, but, as yet, has not found a way of enforcing the regulations.

The greatest fear now in the region is that the peat bogs on Kalimantan and Sumatra, which were responsible for some of the worst smog last year, could be on the verge of going up in flames again.

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