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Indonesian Fires Cause Problems in Southeast Asia

Indonesia —(Map)

Hundreds of fires have been burning in Indonesia, clearing rainforests and other areas, and creating clouds of smoke that are affecting not only Indonesia, but Malaysia and Singapore as well.

Haze from fires in Southeast Asia is not new, especially between June and October, when many farmers clear their land by burning. But right now, the situation is the worst it’s been since 2015.

After several relatively quiet fire seasons in Indonesia, an abundance of blazes in Kalimantan (part of Borneo) and Sumatra in September 2019 has blanketed the region in a pall of thick, noxious smoke. Caption by Adam Voiland.
Hundreds of fires have been burning in Indonesia, clearing rainforests and other areas, and creating clouds of smoke that are affecting not only Indonesia, but Malaysia and Singapore as well. The picture shows a satellite view of the smoke from Indonesia’s fires.
(Source: Joshua Stevens/NASA (LANCE MODIS) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

There were nearly 12,000 fires in Indonesia last week. That’s around three times as high as the average for this time of year. So far this year, over 1,160 square miles (3,000 square kilometers) have been burned.

Part of the problem is that the weather has been hotter and drier than normal. But the fires are usually set on purpose, since it’s the easiest and cheapest way for farmers to clear land. But these fires often get out of control and set fire to other areas, like rainforests.

View of palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor
Large companies are also clearing huge areas of land to produce palm oil, which has become very popular in recent years. Palm oil comes from oil palm plants, which grow well in Indonesia and Malaysia. This picture of an oil palm plantation was taken in 2008.
(Source: Achmad Rabin Taim [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Large companies are also clearing huge areas of land to produce palm oil, which has become very popular in recent years. Palm oil comes from oil palm plants, which grow well in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Almost half of the fires are in areas covered with peat. Peat is made of lots of layers of dead plants. It forms in wet areas like marshes or bogs, usually over hundreds or thousands of years. Peat can be dried out and burned for fuel.

Flames are visible as peat lands burn in Tumbang Nusa, outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan.
Almost half of the fires are in areas covered with peat. Peat forms in wet areas like marshes or bogs and is made of lots of layers of dead plants. When peat burns, the fires can hide and spread underground, appearing in places where they aren’t expected. This picture was taken in 2015.
(Source: Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR, via Flickr.com.)

But when peat burns in the ground, the fires can be very hard to put out. The fires can hide and spread underground, appearing again much later in places where they aren’t expected. When peat burns, it creates a lot of pollution, especially when it’s wet.

Indonesia says it has 9,000 people working to fight the fires. Fire fighters are dropping water from helicopters. The government has even sprayed chemicals in the clouds to try and bring rain. Indonesia has turned down offers of help from Malaysia.

The Jam Gadang clock tower in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra
This picture of the Jam Gadang clock tower in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra was taken in 2017.
(Source: Crisco 1492 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)
Kabut Jam Gadang pada 2019
Though the burning is mainly in Indonesia, the smoke also blows over Malaysia and Singapore, causing very unhealthy conditions. In Indonesia, nearly 900,000 people have suffered from breathing problems. This picture of the Jam Gadang clock tower was taken last Tuesday.
(Source: Rabmusgttotof [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Though the burning is mainly in Indonesia, the smoke also blows over Malaysia and Singapore, causing very unhealthy conditions. Thousands of schools have been closed in Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, nearly 900,000 people have suffered from breathing problems.

In all three countries, it’s common for people to wear masks when they go outdoors. But masks don’t always filter everything. Much of the pollution is made of tiny particles so small they can’t always be stopped by normal masks.

A family riding a motorcycle through the thick air and smoke from peat fires. Outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan.
In all three countries, people often wear masks when they go outdoors. But masks don’t always filter everything. Much of the pollution is made of tiny particles so small they can’t always be stopped by normal masks. This picture was taken in Indonesia in 2015.
(Source: CIFOR, via Flickr.com.)

Though the fires are happening in Asia right now, they will affect the whole world and the future.

To tackle the climate crisis , one of the most important steps is reducing the amount of dangerous gases like carbon dioxide that get released into the air. But fires like the recent ones in Indonesia, Brazil, and other places release massive amounts of carbon dioxide.

The Guardian newspaper reports that fires around the world so far this year have put out more carbon dioxide than the amount put out in a year by the European Union and Japan put together.

The sky becomes a yellowish hue due to the thick smoke of peat land fires. Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan.
Fires like the recent ones in Indonesia, Brazil, and other places release massive amounts of carbon dioxide. This picture was taken during a similar fire season in 2015.
(Source: Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR, via Flickr.com.)

Did You Know…?

In some places in Indonesia, the particles in the air have caused the light to scatter in an unusual way, turning the sky completely red.

Indonesia


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