What you should know about Indonesia’s devastating fires

For the past two months, enormous forest fires have been raging across large swaths of Indonesia. So far, 120,000 active fires have been detected in the country. The smoke has been so bad it could be seen from space. Below is a guide to the basic facts you should know about the disaster.

How the fires started

The practice of using burning forests to clear land is common in Indonesia. Although it’s illegal to burn large tracts of land, burning is one the of cheapest ways to clear land, and the rule is frequently broken. This year, El Nino made conditions in the country drier and hotter than normal, and the monsoon rains came later, making conditions ideal for the fires to spread. Another problem is Indonesia’s rich peat lands. Peat fires can smolder underground for long periods of time, and then kindle into fires aboveground.

The fires have become an enormous health hazard

In the areas most affected by the fire, the air has turned a smoky yellow, and become so thick and hazy people can barely see 10 meters ahead. The pollution standards index (PSI) hit 2,300 in some places, with anything over 300 considered hazardous to human health. An estimated half-million people have been affected by the fires, and so far at least 19 have died.

They’re destroying the last habitat of endangered orangutans

Indonesia houses some of the largest populations of endangered orangutans. Indonesia and Sumatra are the only two places the apes live in the wild, and the fires are thought to currently threaten up to a third of the wild population. Sabangau forest, Tanjung Putting park, Katingan forest and Mawas reserve are all located near wildfires. Collectively, the parks hold almost 20,000 orangutans. Kalimantan, the area where many of the national parks are located, has so far lost around 200 hectares, or 20 percent of its land to the fires. Mawas has lost about 15,000 hectares. It is not known exactly what effect smoke inhalation will have on orangutans.

They’ve caused huge environmental destruction

In addition to destroying prime habitat for endangered orangutans, the fires have been causing other environmental damages as well. The fires are emitting huge amounts of both carbon dioxide and methane gasses. In fact, for 26 days in September and October, the fires emitted more greenhouse gasses than the entire U.S. economy does in a day. Nearly two-thirds of Indonesia’s carbon emissions come from forest fire.

The fires are finally being brought under control

According to Global Forest Watch, the number of fires burning seems to finally be decreasing. This is due in large part to the arrival of monsoon rains in the country. During the fires, the government also began considering serious steps to make sure similar fires do not break out in future years. The steps include re-wetting peat lands, which would lower the prevalence of the peat fires. The government is also considering clarifying land ownership and resolving land conflicts, which would help stop illegal fires. The changes would go a long way to reducing the number of fires in the country, but only if they are in fact put into effect.

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