The smoke is so thick it stings the eyes and burns the throat, making the simple act of breathing a chore. It’s impossible to see beyond 50 feet, and the sun seems to have disappeared.
All across Southeast Asia, people are struggling to cope with an unprecedented ecological disaster caused by hundreds of forest fires in Indonesia.
The fires - many of them deliberately set as a cheap way of clearing land - have been burning for months, creating a cloud of smoke that covers an area more than half the size of the continental United States.
Known as “the haze,” it has made life miserable for millions of people, not only in Indonesia but also in five other countries where it has sent air pollution levels soaring: Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand.
The high-rise office buildings of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, are barely visible. Some beach resorts in southern Thailand are blanketed. Airports across the region have been closed. Many schools have been shut down.
But nowhere is the smoke worse than in this city of 300,000 on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Jambi, 370 miles northwest of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, is surrounded by a fire that has crept to within a few miles of the city. The forest undergrowth is alive with flames, and with every hot, dry gust of wind, sparks swirl high into the trees.
In town, long lines of coughing patients wait outside doctors’ clinics. Hospital wards are full.
“I take cough medicine and wear a mask when I’m outside,” said Roy Pernihutay, an operator for the local telephone company. “But I still find it hard to breathe. My head feels dizzy.”
Smoke detectors have been switched off to keep them from ringing constantly. By early afternoon, daylight is so dim that drivers must turn on their headlights.
The scene is the same on the island of Borneo and in parts of Java and Sulawesi.
The fires, many deliberately set by forestry and plantation companies, have blackened at least 740,000 acres. There are unconfirmed reports that the acreage burned is twice that number.
To make matters worse, El Nino, an abnormal weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean, has brought on the worst drought in half a century, delaying monsoon rains that could ease the crisis.
Indonesia and Malaysia have ordered planes to drop salt solution into clouds to try to induce precipitation. But many aircraft have been grounded by lack of visibility. And those that do get into the air have trouble finding the right sort of clouds to seed.
“Allah will give us rain,” said one of hundreds of Muslims who gathered to pray Thursday in Jambi.
Indonesian President Suharto has apologized to his neighbors, saying his government is doing its best to tackle the problem. All land-clearing has been banned and harsh penalties have been enacted against forest burners.
Indonesia has deployed more than 8,000 firefighters, while 1,200 more have come from Malaysia. Other nations, including the United States, Japan and Australia, have offered assistance.
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