November 02, 2015

Indonesia is burning, not just trees but the land itself in the largest recorded fire

A great tract of Earth is on fire in Indonesia. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 metres. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century – so far.

Fire is raging across the 5,000km length of Indonesia. It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. And in three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany.

It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smoulder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide. The plumes extend for hundreds of miles, causing diplomatic conflicts with neighbouring countries.

Why is this happening? Indonesia’s forests have been fragmented for decades by timber and farming companies. Canals have been cut through the peat to drain and dry it. Plantation companies move in to destroy what remains of the forest to plant monocultures of pulpwood, timber and palm oil. The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it.

Last big fire in Indonesia

1997 and 1998 – Unprecedented forest fires in Kalimantan and East Sumatra. 97,000 km2 (37,000 sq mi) of forest were destroyed, more than 2.6 gigatonnes of CO2 was released to the atmosphere. The underground smouldering fire on the peat bogs continue to burn and ignite new forest fire each year during dry season. There are other forest fires in Java and Sulawesi on the same year. 15,000 children were missing after the 1997 fire.

Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate.’ Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

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