Thousands pray for rain in Indonesia as forests go up in smoke

Indonesian Muslim women pray for rain during a long drought season and haze in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, September 11, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman/ via REUTERS

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Thousands of Indonesians prayed for rain in haze-hit towns on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo on Wednesday, as forest fires raged at the height of the dry season, the state Antara news agency reported.

Fires have burnt through parts of Sumatra and Borneo island for more than a month and the government has sent 9,000 military, police and disaster agency personnel to fight the flames.

Indonesia’s neighbors regularly complain about smog caused by its forest blazes, which are often started to clear land for palm oil and pulp plantations.

But Indonesia said this week it was not to blame and fires had been spotted by satellites in several neighboring countries.

Several parts of Southeast Asia have seen unusually dry conditions in recent months including Indonesia, which has seen very little rain because of an El Nino weather pattern, its meteorological department has said.

Some communities have taken to prayer in the hope of ending the dry weather, and the haze it brings.

Thousands of people in Pekanbaru, capital of Riau province in Sumatra, held Islamic prayers for rain outside the governor’s office. Many of those taking part wore face masks to protect themselves from the smoke, Antara reported.

“We’re doing everything we can, now we pray to Allah for the rain,” deputy provincial governor Edy Nasution told the news agency.

Similar prayers were held in towns in Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo, where air quality has been at unhealthy levels and schools have been forced to close, the news agency said.

Mosques in Malaysia have also been encouraged to hold prayers for rain, said the head of Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department, Mohamad Nordin, according to the state news agency Bernama.

Indonesian authorities are using 37 helicopters and 239 million litres of water bombs to attack the blazes, the disaster agency said on its Twitter account, while aircraft were seeding clouds in the hope of generating rain.

The agency said 5,062 fire “hot spots” had been detected in six Indonesian provinces, as of Wednesday morning.

Endro Wibowo, deputy police chief of the town of Sampit in Central Kalimantan province, said his team was working around the clock to put out the fires.

Police were also taking legal action to deter farmers from illegally using fire to clear land, Antara reported.

Criminal cases have been initiated against 175 people in different places on suspicion of starting fires while four palm oil companies were facing charges of negligence, police told media.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) said small-scale farmers were being blamed for fires started by palm oil plantation companies.

“Actions by the central and local governments have not been strong enough against companies in industrial forests or palm plantations on peat lands. They always blame the community,” said Muhammad Ferdhiyadi of the group’s South Sumatra branch.

(Reporting by Gayatri Suroyo and Jessica Damiana in JAKARTA; Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR)

Chile battles devastating wildfires as international help pours in

By Anthony Esposito

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – The worst wildfires in Chile’s modern history are ravaging wide swaths of the country’s central-south regions, as a massive Boeing 747-400 Super Tanker arrived on Wednesday on loan from the United States to help extinguish the blazes.

“We have never seen something of this size, never in Chile’s history. And the truth is the (firefighting) forces are doing everything that is humanly possible and will continue to do so until the fires are contained and controlled,” President Michelle Bachelet said, as she visited the hard-hit Maule region.

Forest fires are a regular feature of Chile’s hot, arid summers, but a nearly decade-long drought combined with historically high temperatures have created tinder-dry conditions.

International help from France, the United States, Peru and Mexico has been pouring into Chile as the fires swept through forested hills and into neighboring towns, scorching homes, industry and the region’s world-renowned vineyards. The country last week declared a state of emergency.

As of Wednesday, 85 separate fires had been recorded, covering some 190,000 hectares (469,500 acres) – more than twice the area of New York City.

Chile’s Conaf forestry service said that 35 of the fires were still out of control.

At least some of the fires may have been started intentionally and there had been a number of arrests in relation to ongoing investigations, said Bachelet.

Three firefighters were killed on Jan. 15 and another three gravely injured. Local media reported on Wednesday that another firefighter had died.

Some Chileans, such as Susana Molina, 82, a boutique wine producer, have seen their livelihoods destroyed.

“All my fields burned, there were four hectares that I had and it all burned,” she said, from Cauquenes in the Maule region. Around 100 small vineyards in Cauquenes alone had been damaged so far, said the local industry association.

The forestry industry has also been impacted, with smaller outfits the most vulnerable.

Chile’s forest products industry, the country’s second biggest by exports after copper mining, is led by Empresas Copec subsidiary Arauco, Empresas CMPC, and Masisa.

Chile, along the seismically-active Pacific Rim, is no stranger to natural disasters. It is often walloped by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and strong storms.

As a result, its emergency response teams, building codes and residents are usually well-prepared to confront such situations. But the scale of this season’s fires have overwhelmed authorities.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito, additional reporting by Reuters TV; editing by Rosalba O’Brien, G Crosse)