Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency chief, Doni Monardo, (holding hose) leads firefighting efforts in Riau Islands province on Sept. 11. Firefighters are struggling to extinguish forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan that have triggered health fears and diplomatic tensions with neighboring countries. (Photo courtesy of BNPB)
Indonesian firefighters say they are battling around the clock to extinguish peat fires that have caused clouds of haze over vast areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
The fires, many of which were illegally started to clear land for palm oil plantations, have triggered health fears among hundreds of thousands of people and caused diplomatic spats between Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.
A 4-year-old girl reportedly died on Sept. 15 in South Sumatera province due to respiratory problems linked to the smoke.
The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency on Sept. 17 said there are about 45,200 hotspots, or fires, spread across six provinces on the two islands, up from 27,212 in the same month last year.
National Disaster Management Agency spokesman, Agus Wibowo, said more than 9,000 firefighters, four planes and 44 helicopters were battling the flames.
“Health posts have been set up in each affected area to monitor the health of locals," said Wibowo.
According to the Ministry of Health, more than 150,000 people have been treated for respiratory problems.
The fires have also caused around 100 international flights to be canceled.
Retno Listyarti from the Indonesian Child Protection Commission who visited Riau last week said many schools have been forced to close.
"We found many teachers and students with health problems, such as coughs sore throat and fever," she told ucanews.com.
Once school in Central Kalimantan province caught fire on Sept. 14, she said.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Riau on Sept. 16, where he met regional leaders, amid growing criticism from Malaysia and Singapore which are also affected by the haze.
Widodo said he had ordered a crackdown on those responsible for starting the blazes and that all was being done to put them out.
He also stressed the importance of preventive measures so that similar occurrences do not happen again.
Environment and Forestry Minister, Siti Nurbaya, accused 370 companies of clearing land by burning, and that 49 of them had been closed down.
The police said that 47 individuals had also been arrested for starting forest fires.
However, environmental activists have cast doubt over the government's commitment to solving the problem.
Zenzi Suhadi, from environmental group Friends of the Earth, said it was the same old story every year about cracking down on companies that start fires.
"So-called crackdowns are not accompanied by decisive action," he said.
A number of companies were successfully prosecuted last year but punishments were not followed up, which sends out the wrong message, he said.
Of the US$ 1.34 billion in fines issued by courts, only $28.4 million has been paid, Suhadi said.