By Nicky Aulia Widadio and Rhany Chairunissa Rufinaldo
PEKANBARU, Indonesia (AA) - Making life difficult for locals, thick haze continued to cover a city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Monday due to forest and peatland fires.
Since the beginning of September, the sun has not been visible in the city’s normally blue sky.
Most locals in the city of Pekanbaru in the Riau province wear masks when driving or going outdoors.
Monday’s air quality index in the city registered as "unhealthy," said weather officials, with particulate matter reaching 195.4 micrograms per cubic meter.
Visibility in the city was also very limited, down to around 1.2 kilometers.
Schools have been closed since last week due to the poor air quality.
The provincial government also opened dozens of free health centers for people affected by the harmful haze, providing masks, pure oxygen, medicines, and vitamins.
Local Echy Kurniawati, 30, told Anadolu Agency that the haze irritated her eyes and made it hard to breathe.
In the first time Kurniawati has left the house since the air quality in the city deteriorated, she went to one of the health centers to get pure oxygen.
"I went straight here because I was out of breath," said Kurniawati.
Her two children -- 4 and 5 years old -- have started coughing due to the smog, she said.
"They only stayed at home and didn't come out. But, lately, our eyes also stung even when we just stay inside the house,” she added.
- No sign of rain
State meteorologist Bibit Suryanto said air quality in the region will not improve in the next few days as there are no signs of rain.
Suryanto said the government’s efforts to make artificial rain have not been successful as they depend on clouds.
According to him, there were 701 hotspots in the southern area of Sumatra, where some of the smoke was carried by wind to Riau.
Suryanto said there were only 73 hotspots in Riau, while 423 spots were found in the South Sumatra province.
"But the haze was carried here by the wind," he added.
Based on Anadolu Agency observations on Monday, forest fires were still raging in the village of Rimbo Panjang, Tambang, in Kampar Regency, and firefighters were still trying to put out the fire.
The haze has become thicker in neighboring residential areas.
Syafril Leo, 43, whose house lies only 100 meters from a hotspot, said since the fire burned the peatland near his house, he had to stay alert to make sure the fire wouldn't reach it.
"I was forced to stay alert at night, as the moment the fire hits the house it’s finished," he said.
Leo said nobody knows how the area caught fire as the blaze appeared suddenly on Sunday afternoon.
But he said he suspected that the land was deliberately burned.
"There's no way peatland can burn itself this way," he added.
- Decades-long problem
Indonesian forest fires were caused by changing land use which made the tropical forest vulnerable to fire during a drought associated with the El Nino, say officials.
The 2019 El Nino is similar to one that occurred in 2015, but the number of hotspots and forest fires is larger, said the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry in a statement.
The El Nino condition prevents rainfall almost nationwide.
Widespread air pollution caused by forest and peatland fire has been a recurring problem in Indonesia since the 1990s, flaring up every dry season to varying degrees.
In 1997, forest fires in Indonesia began to affect neighboring countries, spreading thick clouds of smoke and haze to Malaysia and Singapore.
The ministry said the burned peatland reached more than 80,000 hectares and as of Aug. 31, the overall burned area reached 238,000 hectares.