DUMAI, Indonesia - Fires in Indonesia that have blanketed Singapore and Malaysia in thick smog eased Wednesday after heavy rain, boosting hopes of an end to Southeast Asia's worst air pollution crisis for years.
The news came as a report said the crisis had claimed its first victim with the death of an asthmatic woman in southern Malaysia, which has been badly affected.
The smog from slash-and-burn agricultural fires on Sumatra island pushed haze levels to a record high in Singapore last week, shrouding residential buildings and downtown skyscrapers.
Favourable winds have since cleared the air over the city-state but southern Malaysia remains choked by smoke.
Indonesia deployed thousands of reinforcements on Tuesday to fight the fires, which are centred in Riau province. They are backed by aircraft dropping water and chemically inducing rain by cloud-seeding.
Their efforts were helped when rain fell late Tuesday and early Wednesday in several areas of Riau, officials and residents said.
On Wednesday morning, the number of fire hotspots had fallen to 54 from 265 the previous day, national disaster agency official Agus Wibowo told AFP from Riau.
"The rain has definitely helped our efforts," he said. "With the improving weather on our side, we are taking the opportunity to quickly fight the blazes on land." The fires have been hard to put out as they are burning under the surface of carbon-rich peat, meaning hoses need to be pushed into the ground to douse the flames.
Conditions had improved dramatically in the badly-hit city of Dumai, in Riau, on Wednesday after a storm broke at dawn, according to an AFP reporter.
"We were so hoping for rainwater because our water supply for bathing and washing clothes had run out," said Lisa Rahmawati, a 25-year-old secretary.