International help arrives to tackle Indonesia fires as president sets two week target

Malaysian aircrew members diesmbark from a C-130 military aircraft as they arrive at Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin airport in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia, Oct 9.
Malaysian aircrew members diesmbark from a C-130 military aircraft as they arrive at Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin airport in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia, Oct 9. EPA

JAKARTA (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - International help to assist Indonesia in combating forest and agricultural fires cloaking Southeast Asia in haze has begun to arrive on Sumatra island, a day after President Joko Widodo said the country aims to extinguish all the fires within two weeks. 

The focus for the first week will be on South Sumatra, the source of the haze that has affected the region, Joko was quoted as saying by the Indonesian news agency Detiknews.com on Friday. The Indonesian government plans to acquire at least three aircraft to deal with the forest fires next year, he added. 

Planes from Malaysia and Singapore arrived on Saturday (Oct 10) and will soon begin water-bombing hard-hit South Sumatra province, AFP quoted Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency, as saying. 

“They are currently being briefed by the disaster mitigation chief and the water bombing will start immediately after that,” Nugroho told AFP.

A Bombardier amphibious aircraft and crew arrived on Friday from Malaysia, he said.

A Chinook helicopter, capable of pouring water from a huge hanging bucket, and a Hercules C-130 carrying 42 firefighters arrived from Singapore on Saturday, after being delayed due to poor visibility.

Nugroho said one helicopter from Malaysia was scheduled to arrive later on Saturday to join the operation.

Fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan have been blanketing Southeast Asia for weeks, with pollution levels in both locations recorded far above hazardous levels.

The blazes are an annual occurrence during the dry season, but scientists have warned this year’s are on track to be the worst ever as an El Nino weather system has created tinder-dry conditions in Indonesia.

The haze has forced Malaysia and Singapore to close schools and cancel outdoor events.

Jakarta has deployed about 25,000 personnel and aircraft, but the firefighters have been overwhelmed by the extent of the blazes.

The Indonesian government had insisted on not accepting international help for weeks before finally agreeing to accept the offers from several countries to combat the haze.

Australia has pledged to send a Lockheed L100 Hercules Air Tanker, with foreign minister Julie Bishop asserting Australia’s experience in fighting the bushfires.