Indonesian police arrest 185 suspected of starting forest fires

Indonesian authorities arrested 185 people suspected of starting the forest fires that are spreading a thick, noxious haze around Southeast Asia, police said Monday.

A thick, noxious haze is spreading across Southeast Asia

Smoke billows from a forest fire in Tapin regency near Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, on Aug. 29. Police announced Monday there have been dozens of arrests of people suspected of causing such fires. ( Antara Foto/Bayu Pratama S via Reuters)

Indonesian authorities arrested 185 people suspected of starting the forest fires that are spreading a thick, noxious haze around Southeast Asia, police said Monday.

Indonesia and neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia are regularly hit by smoky haze from slash-and-burn clearances of forests for timber and palm oil plantations, but conditions this year have been the worst since 2015 due to an El Niño weather pattern causing an extended dry spell.

National police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said police formally handed over investigations of 23 of those who were arrested to prosecutors last week, while 45 others will be tried later this month. Police are still investigating the rest.

Prasetyo said the suspects were arrested in six provinces that have declared a state of emergency over forest fires. The provinces have a combined population of more than 23 million.

He said the suspects could be prosecuted under an environmental protection law that allows a maximum 10-year prison sentence for setting fires to clear land.

Meanwhile, Indonesia closed more schools on Monday in parts of the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, as well as providing oxygen at health centres to help treat some of the thousands suffering respiratory infections due to choking smoke from forest fires.

Motorists ride their motorbikes through haze due to a forest fire in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, on Sunday. (Willy Kurniawan/Reuters )

In recent days, thick smog from fires has been drifting across cities in Borneo and Sumatra. Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency says more than 3,280 square kilometres of forests and peatlands have burned since January.

The air pollution index in Palangka Raya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province on Borneo, has been at "dangerous" levels for days, data from Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry showed. The air quality in other areas, such as Jambi and Riau provinces in Sumatra, also hit "unhealthy" levels.

Schools in two cities in Central Kalimantan have been closed this week due to concerns over the pollution, while schools in Riau have also been shut.

Sutarmidji, West Kalimantan's governor, had extended school closures in his province until Wednesday, according to a circular issued on Monday.

Mimi Nazir, head of Riau's health agency, said the Sumatran province had opened 12 temporary centres in the capital Pekanbaru to treat people suffering respiratory infections.

Firefighters try to extinguish forest fires at Sebangau National Park area in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, on Saturday. (Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)

"If people need fresh air, they can come to the houses. There's oxygen, medical staff, and basic and emergency medicines," Nazir said by telephone, adding that if people needed further treatment, they could be referred to hospital.

According to data from Indonesia's Health Ministry, acute respiratory infections have affected:

  • 11,758 people in Palangka Raya.
  • 15,346 in Riau.
  • 15,047 in Jambi,

The ministry distributed more than 1.2 million masks in impacted areas as well as 1,000 vials of respiratory medicine.

Poor visibility due to the smoke affected 11 airports across Sumatra and Indonesian parts of Borneo on Monday, causing 10 flight to be cancelled, 50 delayed and two diverted, air traffic control provider AirNav said in a statement.

Indonesia's flag carrier Garuda said in a statement on Monday it had cancelled at least 15 domestic flights to cities in Indonesian parts of Borneo until Thursday due to concerns over limited visibility.

With files from The Associated Press