PETALING JAYA, Malaysia - The air quality in parts of Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia continued to deteriorate sharply on Thursday as a result of open burning and land-clearing bush fires in the face of an unusual dry spell.
People in Selangor, particularly, were left choking as the Air Pollutant Index (API) soared on Thursday, and Klang authorities have ordered schools to close on Friday.
Reports said Port Klang recorded a "very unhealthy" API reading of 203 as at 1pm. Twelve other areas, including Kuala Lumpur and other major towns in Negeri Sembilan and Malacca, recorded readings of between 113 and 145.
API readings of 0-50 are considered good, moderate is from 51-100, unhealthy is 101-200, very unhealthy is 201-300 and levels exceeding 300 are dangerous.
Officials here blamed the worsening haze on open burning in Malaysia, with the director-general of the Meteorological Department, Datuk Che Gayah Ismail, disclosing that more than 600 open burning spots were recorded nationwide on Wednesday.
"Yes, the smoke and haze are still caused by us," she told the Malaysian Insider website on Thursday "If the wind direction changes now, we will be in trouble. The haze will be much, much worse if that happens." She also said the wind direction made it impossible to blame Indonesia for the unhealthy air quality in Malaysia.
This is in spite of the fact that the air quality in Riau, in Sumatra, has also reached hazardous levels in the past two months.
Thick haze led to the closure of the main Sultan Syarif Kasim II airport in Riau on Thursday, Xinhua news agency quoted transport ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan as saying.
He said airlines decided to stop airport operations for three days, beginning on Thursday, as visibility was bad. The resumption of operations would depend on an improvement in visibility, he told Xinhua by phone.
The number of hot spots detected in Sumatra soared on Wednesday morning to 2,390, with 2,046 in Riau, according to the Pekanbaru Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG).
"A day before, the hot spots in Sumatra were 131, 63 of which were located in Riau," Pekanbaru BMKG data and information head Slamet Riyadi told The Jakarta Post. He attributed the soaring number of hot spots to the dry season.
The newspaper said police, in their latest attempt to tackle the fires, have deployed special teams to find the individuals responsible for illegally felling trees and setting fire to land and forests in the province.
Riau police chief Condro Kirono said on Wednesday that he has formed nine special teams, each consisting of 50 to 70 individuals from the police, the army, the air force and the Riau prosecutor's office.
Spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told a news conference on Wednesday that more than 41,000 people had become ill from the bad air, mostly suffering from upper respiratory infections or pneumonia.
"This data is obtained from the number of people seeking treatment at the community health centres and of course, there are many others who prefer not to come to health facilities," Dr Sutopo said.
At least two people are believed to have died as the Pollutant Standards Index in Riau soared past the hazardous 300 mark in recent days.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.