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AN END IN SIGHT

Saturday, September 27, 1997

World likely to weather haze headache

By LEIGH DAYTON, Science Writer

Australian meteorologists believe the smoky haze which is devastating millions of people in South-East Asia is unlikely to have any long-term effect on the world's weather.

The heavy haze has already spread over much of Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand and the Philippines.

But Mr Terry Hart, superintendent of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology's Operations Centre in Canberra, said it was unlikely to spread much further. Within weeks the monsoon rains would move into the region, halting the north-westward movement of the noxious pall, Mr Hart predicted.

"The monsoon could be delayed slightly because of the El Nino and the amount of rainfall could be less, but it's unlikely to disappear completely," he said, noting that already some drizzle had started over outlying fire areas.

The monsoon would "wash the smoke out of the sky". Sooty particles would not rise high enough into the atmosphere to be circulated around the globe by air currents.

In contrast, ash from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines entered the stratosphere about 20 kilometres up, and was carried around the planet, causing temporary cooling.

Wildfires and haze are a seasonal event in Indonesia, as loggers, plantation owners and small-scale farmers burn off slashed and scrub vegetation.

Mr Phil Cheney, a forester with the CSIRO Bush Fire Unit in Canberra, said the "prodigious" amount of smoke this year was a direct consequence of "exceedingly high fuel consumption" by the flames.

Drought and a late monsoon, triggered by El Nin~o conditions, had caused tinder-like litter to form in the rainforest.

The drought had also dried the extensive grasslands and larger material left behind by logging operations, which normally did not burn, Mr Cheney said. As well, slow-burning peat swamps and vast underground coal seams were undoubtedly alight, adding to the smoke.

Bad fires had raged in the same region in 1991 and 1994, said Mr Tony Howe, a forester with NSW State Forests and the leader of a rapid assessment team sent to Indonesia during the 1994 outbreak.

Much of the problem was because many of the worst effects of such fires, especially the smoke, were felt outside the burning areas.

"In a lot of cases the rural folk and people lighting the fires don't see the fires as a big problem," Mr Howe said. "They shrug their shoulders and say, "So what, we've been doing this for hundreds of years'."

The problem was worsened because "there's a whole raft of potentially responsible authorities and no-one wants to carry the blame for their contribution". The 1994 assessment team found that on-the-ground firefighting was difficult because the blazes were extensive and involved many sources.

Local firefighters were untrained and had difficulty getting to the far-flung blazes.

Mr Howe said any Australian assistance should start by using aircraft, infrared photography and satellite imagery to pinpoint the worst fires, which could then be tackled by Australian firefighters and local people.

Mr Howe's team recommended that the Indonesian Government introduce a "prevention and minimisation strategy" to ensure burning was done when the material was dry, thus reducing smoke.

"But the key recommendation is to recognise that fire is an essential component of the Indonesian culture and it won't go away," he said.

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