ON THE GROUND

'Breathless as soon as I got out of car'

FLYING into Pekanbaru - the capital of Riau province - yesterday morning, I thought I was well prepared for ground zero of the haze blanketing the region.

I had enough N95 masks to last four days. My Indonesian colleague even brought an oxygen tank along for me. But as it turned out, I was wrong.

With the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) level exceeding 400 for much of the day, the air was thick with smoke. Oncoming vehicles all had their fog lights switched on.

We arrived at a plantation in Pelintung, near Dumai, before dusk. Though I was wearing a mask, I felt breathless almost as soon as I got out of the car.

It was a challenging task to walk through kilometres of scorched land in the heat and smoke. Some parts of the plantation were still burning, and we could hear crackling sounds.

The plantation on our left was charred - clearly a result of the slash-and-burn method favoured by farmers to clear their land.

A worker who was hired to put out the fire told The Straits Times that it took more than 100 people and two days to put out the fire in one small part of the plantation. There were many areas where fires continued to rage, he added.

Asked how the fire was started, the worker said it was an act of God, before adding that he was more than happy to be able to earn some money putting it out.

But he also complained about shortness of breath and chest pain from inhaling the choking air.

When my two Straits Times colleagues and I returned to our hotel in town, we found the air there was not much better.

If I thought Singaporeans would be breathing a bit better, I was wrong again. I found out the PSI back home had hit a "hazardous" 321 last night.

joycel@sph.com.sg