Air pollution in Singapore has soared to a record high for a third consecutive day, as Indonesia prepares to send planes and helicopters to battle the fires blamed for hazardous levels of smoky haze in three countries.
The blazes in peat swamp forests on Indonesia’s Sumatra island have sent massive plumes of smog across the sea to neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia, both of which are growing impatient with Indonesia’s response to the problem that occurs nearly every year.
Singapore is suffering its worst haze in history. Its main index for air pollution hit a measurement of 401 at midday on Friday, exceeding record highs of 371 on Thursday and 321 on Wednesday. Those measurements were classified as hazardous and could aggravate respiratory ailments.
Plagued by the stifling smell of burning vegetation that wafted into homes and offices in this wealthy city-state, residents flocked to pharmacies to buy protective face masks after Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, urged people to remain indoors.
“I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but even indoors my throat is starting to feel weird,” said business manager Tan Joa-Quim. “I want a mask but my company has a limited supply, which we prioritised for the older and less healthy staff, and a lot of shops have sold out.”
The dirty, acrid haze has slashed visibility and shrouded many of Singapore’s landmarks, forcing airports to take extra precautions, the military to reduce outdoor training and some fast-food businesses to suspend delivery services.
Singapore’s environment minister flew to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, on Friday to discuss measures to tackle the forest fires that break out in Indonesia during midyear dry spells because of carelessly discarded cigarettes and illegal blazes set by plantations and farmers to clear land.
Indonesia’s national disaster management agency said it planned to use two helicopters in a water-bombing operation to assist more than 100 firefighters on the ground.
It added that planes would be sent over parts of Sumatra in the next few days in a cloud-seeding effort to try to chemically induce rain.
Some airports in Sumatra have also closed because of poor visibility and pollution levels that exceeded Singapore’s.
In neighbouring Malaysia, officials closed nearly 600 schools in southern districts near Singapore. Most of the country, including the main city, Kuala Lumpur, was not as badly affected, though two southernmost towns recorded hazardous air quality.
This week Singapore’s environment minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, urged Indonesia to take urgent and definitive action to combat the pollution at its source. But some Indonesian officials suggested that Singaporean and Malaysian firms involved in Indonesian plantations might be responsible for several of the fires.