Indonesia's Killer Smog Hits Again as Fires Rage

JAKARTA - Thousands of residents of the Indonesian city of Samarinda have fallen ill because of thick smoke from forest fires in East Kalimantan Province, the official Antara press agency reported Monday.

Visibility in the city dropped to 100 meters Sunday, as residents donned face masks to fend off choking smog, Antara said. Samarinda is near the east coast of Kalimantan on the Indonesian side of Borneo Island.

The Suara Pembaruan newspaper in Jakarta reported Sunday that smoke from the fires had caused 297 cases of pneumonia and that two people had died. But Antara reported only one death.

Several thousand people had already been suffering from eye infections and respiratory ailments, including asthma and pneumonia, the agency said.

The number of cases of illness in Samarinda, a city of 350,000, was expected to rise in coming weeks, Awang Joenani, head of the provincial health office, was quoted as saying. He urged people to curb outdoor activities.

Mr. Awang was not available for comment Monday, but a Samarinda airport meteorologist said that visibility had improved substantially.

Health concerns are on the rise as efforts to extinguish the blazes are hampered by drought and failed attempts to induce rain by cloud seeding.

''The fires are big and very hot, making it difficult to get close,'' said Sumadhi, the newly installed forestry minister. ''Getting within 10 meters of the fires is difficult when using traditional firefighting tools.'' He was referring to the hoes, rakes and buckets typically used against the flames.

Poor weather and high winds were obstructing water-bombing missions and causing planes to miss their targets.

Mr. Sumadhi said Indonesia was under pressure from neighboring nations to control the blazes and prevent a repeat of last year's smog from fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra, which caused health problems in Malaysia and Singapore.

In Samarinda, German environmentalists tracking the brush fires using satellite images have pinpointed 1,000 blazes on the island of Borneo.

Some were set by peasant farmers. But the majority, the Germans say, are on land leased by powerful timber companies that still use slash-and-burn techniques as the fastest, cheapest way to convert rain forests into timber estates and palm-oil plantations.

Liberta, an official at Dirgahayu hospital in Samarinda, said the number of patients with respiratory illnesses was increasing daily, but she gave no figures. ''Most of the cases are because of the smog,'' she said.

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