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Asia Minute: Destructive Fires Sweep Indonesia, Parts of Australia

Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory
Smoke from agricultural and forest fires burning on Sumatra (left) and Borneo (right) in late September and early October 2006.

Scores of firefighters on Maui have fought a high number of brush fires this summer that have burned hundreds of acres of land. This week, fires elsewhere in the Pacific are causing problems for several countries.

Most schools on the Indonesian island of Sumatra are closed today because of haze from more than 3,600 fires burning across two islands.

According to Indonesia’s Disaster Mitigation Agency, the fires have already burned more than 600 square miles. That’s an area roughly equivalent to half the size of the state of Rhode Island.

The thick haze is blowing into neighboring countries of Malaysia and Singapore – in what has become a dangerous annual event, and a topic of diplomatic complaint and discontent. Authorities say most of the fires have been set deliberately to clear forests or farmlands for new planting.

The degree to which the haze spreads depends on the speed and direction of the winds, which have been strong in recent days.

Government officials in Malaysia say the fires this season are the worst since 2015. And the dry season will continue until next month.

Further south and east, fire season is just getting underway in eastern Australia, and it’s a rough beginning. Earlier this week, firefighters in the coastal states of Queensland and New South Wales were battling more than 140 separate fires.

After a brief mid-week respite, dry winds are expected to return at the end of this week — raising the government’s forecast of danger of further fires in southern Queensland to “very high.”

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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