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Friday, 10 March, 2000, 12:19 GMT
Eyewitness: Sumatra's forests ablaze
Forest fire
Blazing fires are affecting the health of Sumatra's population
By Richard Galpin in Pekanbaru

On the main roads out of Pekanbaru, one of the main cities on the eastern side of Sumatra, all seems normal for the first few kilometres.

But travel just a little further and normality disappears in clouds of smoke from fires burning on either side of the road.

Anti-smog masks
Anti-smog masks have been issued
The heat is incredibly intense and perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that it is close to a number of houses.

There are people living close to this location, and yet they seem to be staying, not bothered by the fires.

This is the fourth year in a row that these fires have taken place here in Sumatra. Each time the government promises to take action to punish those responsible and yet nothing seems to change.

Health risk

In the main hospital back in Pekanbaru is evidence of the impact the fires are already having on the health of the local population.

Map of Sumatra
Dozens of new patients have been registered here in the last few days, suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems.

For example, Sabrida Wati says she has never had asthma before but earlier this week she suddenly started having difficulty breathing and was rushed to hospital by her husband.

She now breathes with the aid of an extra supply of oxygen.

She is in no doubt that her condition is the direct result of the smog caused by the forest fires, which has been covering Pekanbaru for the past week.

Little action

Dr Minir Umar is a lung specialist at this hospital.

He is angry that after four successive years of massive pollution caused by the forest fires, the government still has done nothing to stop it.

Fire fighters try to douse blazes
"We never expected that this would keep happening over and over again. We cannot tolerate this any more," Dr Umar says.

"Why can't the government anticipate this problem? If it keeps happening year after year it will really affect the health of people, particularly the young generation."

The pollution here has been so bad that many families have been keeping their children indoors as much as possible, giving them video games to play to stop them going outside.

One Pekanbaru father, Ingatran, has two young sons.

He says he is doing as much as he can to protect them from the pollution.

When they do go outside they have to wear masks. But still both of them have become ill. He is now considering leaving this area altogether to live somewhere which is safer for his family.

The government has described the outbreak of these fires as an emergency situation.

State optimism

Many senior officials have been travelling to Sumatra to see at first hand how bad the fires are. Amongst them is Siripto, the secretary-general of the Forestry Ministry.

He is convinced the situation is not as bad as 1997 because the fires have been started in more open areas by plantation owners clearing land to plant more crops, not inside the forests as before.

He believes these fires can be brought under control within the next month or two.

But other government officials are less convinced.

Tiuku Alamsiya is from the Environmental Impact Agency, which has monitored a dramatic increase in the number of fires in the region over the past 10 days.

"I'm worried that if the dry season starts now, then there will be a serious pollution and a major environmental problem. But if the rain comes, then we will be all right," he says.

There has been some rain this week but not enough to put many of the fires out.

Everyone here in Pekanbaru and across Sumatra, Malaysia and Singapore will be praying for more rain over the next few weeks.

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10 Mar 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Indonesia faces new smog menace
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