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Wednesday, 8 April, 1998, 10:15 GMT 11:15 UK
Battle to break the blaze
Lack of rain has turned the ground into a tinderbox
Forest fires in Indonesia look set to cause a major ecological disaster in South East Asia for the second year running. Last year's fires destroyed one million acres of forest and the resulting smog made 20 million people ill.

Now, because of the El Nino weather pattern, there may be no rain until September to help put out more than a 1000 fires. The area of the country that has been worst affected is the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo. Fergal Keane reports from East Kalimantan.

Even on the fringes it is a landscape of ruin. Not like the Earth's surface, rather that of a distant, desolate planet.

Forests have been transformed into wasteland
Our pilot took us into the heart of the disaster zone. The smoke of countless fires swirled around us. They affect a huge area - three times the size of England. The great forests of Borneo are burning. The precious heritage of the earth is being destroyed acre by acre.

It took tens of thousands of years for the forests to evolve. They are being ravaged in a matter of hours.

Fergal Keane assesses the disaster from the air
Even above the forest, you can feel the heat from the fires. Flying can be a tricky business because of the restricted visibility. But it is only from the air that you get a real sense of the scale of the devastation. The smoke goes on for mile after mile.

As we flew further into the forest the smoke began to envelope our helicopter like a shroud. The conditions became too dangerous to continue and the pilot turned back.

Recipe for disaster

The dry weather caused by El Nino has turned this ground into a tinder box. But it is the hand of man which has ignited the disaster.

Logging companies are clearing ground
Many of the fires are started by politically powerful logging companies trying to clear space for new plantations. Their trucks ferry away what remains of the precious forest.

Add to all of this the pressure coming from landless people who burn forest to create space for their crops and the recipe for catastrophe is complete.

On the ground we saw just how quickly the fire consumes all before it. Farmers try frantically to extinguish the flames but they are fighting a losing battle.

Farmers are desperate to save their land
I asked one farmer whether he thought it was impossible to put out the flames. "I've got to try. But as soon as it stops in one place it starts in another," he said.

The villagers have only crude implements to fight the fires. Further up the road we met a unit of the government's fire-fighting service. Under-equipped and undermanned they are having little success.

Health at risk

There is a growing health crisis as a result of the drought and the fires. Respiratory diseases are spreading as are diseases like cholera. Local hospitals are full of children who have been brought in from remote villages for treatment.

Animals pay the price

Orangutans are being forced from their natural home
Indonesia's forests are home to one tenth of the world's animal species. But precious habitats are being wiped out. Animals are burned in the inferno or forced to flee to areas where they are vulnerable by poachers.

Orphoned orangutans, already an endangered species, are being cared for in a sanctuary. Traumatised and disorientated, they are paying a high price for the actions of humans.

Global response required

Klaus T¿pfer: UN firefighter
The crisis has at last provoking a global response. The fires are an international pollution hazard and cause global warming. Now the UN has appointed Professor Klaus Töpfer to co-ordinate its fight against the fires.

The financial cost of what's happened already runs into billions of dollars. It is much harder to calculate the human health and environmental cost of these fires. What is certain though, beyond any doubt, is that we have lost some of vital natural heritage forever.

See also:

06 Apr 98 | Haze 98
06 Apr 98 | Haze 98
06 Apr 98 | Haze 98
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