Yudhoyono Faults Fire Effort as Smog Hazardous in Malaysia

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono may take over efforts to control haze-causing fires on Sumatra island, as air pollution reached hazardous levels in parts of neighboring Malaysia.

Blazes in Riau province, home to plantations producing palm oil and paper, were caused by residents and companies burning fields and worsened by the region’s drought, said Yudhoyono, whose term as president ends this year. Malaysia’s air pollutant index reached 345 in Selangor state as of 10 a.m. local time today, a level considered hazardous, according to the country’s Department of Environment website. The index stood at 304 at noon.

Poor visibility off Riau meant the Indonesian portion of a regional search for a missing Malaysian airliner had to shift north, Hadi Tjahjanto, a spokesman for the Indonesian Air Force, said today.

Southeast Asia has been plagued for decades by periodic smog caused by ash drifting from Sumatra, with regular disputes over responsibility. Singapore, which suffered its worst pollution on record last June, is proposing a law to punish companies behind fires in the region.

“The central and local governments, the disaster management agency as well as the army and the police have tried to manage it, but the results haven’t been satisfactory,” Yudhoyono said on Twitter, adding he may take over management of the disaster if Riau officials did not improve their response in the next two days.

Hot Spots

Sumatra had 3,101 fire “hot spots” from Feb. 20 to March 11, the World Resources Institute, a non-governmental organization, said in a report yesterday. There were 2,643 fire alerts from June 13-30 when the 2013 haze crisis peaked, it said. The Washington, D.C.-based group joined with Google Inc. last month to start a detection system using NASA satellite data.

Schools in Malaysia’s Port Klang and Kuala Langat districts were ordered closed today after principals suffered from red and watery eyes, Malaysian state news agency Bernama reported. Pollution was “unhealthy” in the capital Kuala Lumpur, while Singapore’s air quality remains “moderate”, its National Environment Agency website showed today.

AirAsia Bhd. said it canceled flights to and from the Riau provincial capital of Pekanbaru until March 16 due to low visibility.

“The presence of thick haze reduces pilot visibility to below 1,000 meters, which is the minimum level of flight visibility required for safe operations,” the airline said in a statement.

Suspects Charged

The haze from Riau’s fires is engulfing West Sumatra province, triggering respiratory ailments for nearly 50,000 Indonesians, the disaster management agency said yesterday.

Local farmers are taking advantage of the drought to start land-clearing blazes that spread to concessions managed by the pulp and paper maker known as APRIL, which is “strictly enforcing a decades-old no-burn policy” and deploying 600 fire fighters, 200 more than last year, the company said in a Feb. 11 statement.

Police in Indonesia have charged 37 suspects in Sumatra blazes, Yudhoyono said.

“They will be brought to justice, but if every year there’s burning, the disaster will happen again,” Yudhoyono said.

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