|(Flight MH370) Indonesia smog hinders search, 15 carriers halt flights
Heavy smoke from illegal fires lighted to clear land for plantations has blanketed parts of Indonesia's Sumatra island, disrupting flights and hampering search efforts for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, officials and a pilot said.
Forest and brush fires have raged for the past week, mostly in peat-rich Riau province, forcing schools to close. Children and the elderly are filling up local clinics and hospitals, complaining of respiratory problems.
State-run Garuda Indonesia and 15 other airlines have canceled flights to and out of Pekanbaru, airport official Ibnu Hasan said.
Forty-six hotspots were detected by satellite today across Riau province, down sharply from 168 yesterday, said Raffles Brotestes Panjaitan, the Forestry Ministry's director of Forest Fire Control. As much as 13,000 hectares of land in Riau has been burned since early last month, according to government estimates.
Panjaitan said a thick haze was covering Pekanbaru, the provincial capital of Riau and the nearest city to the fires, sending a cloud of smoke to the neighboring provinces of Jambi and West Sumatra. Visibility was reduced to less than 50 meters in some districts.
The smoke was also hampering Indonesian navy pilots searching for the missing Malaysian jetliner over the Malacca Strait, said Major Laksono, a Cassa C-212 pilot involved in the search.
“We had to fly below 500 feet to avoid clouds of smoke,'' said Laksono, who like many Indonesians uses one name. “But overall, the search went smoothly.''--AP