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Helicopters 'water-bomb' Singapore to fight hazardous smoky haze

Sinagpore is shrouded in haze due to forest fires on the neighbouring Indonesian island of Sumatra.

In this combination photo, Singapore’s Central Business District, or CBD, is seen on Thursday, June 20, 2013 with unhealthy levels of haze, top, and at hazardous levels where the CBD is no longer visible on Friday, June 21, 2013, bottom. Pic: AP Photo/Joseph Nair

AIR POLLUTION IN Singapore soared to record heights for a third consecutive day, as Indonesia dispatched planes and helicopters Friday to battle raging 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 neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, both of which have grown impatient with Indonesia’s response to the perennial problem.

Singapore is suffering its worst haze in history. Its main air pollution index hit a measurement of 401 at midday today, exceeding previous highs of 371 on Thursday and 321 on Wednesday, both of which were record readings. Those measurements were classified as “hazardous” and can aggravate respiratory ailments.

The index, which has fluctuated widely this week, eased to as low as 139 by this evening, still in an unhealthy range.

Smoke from forest fire blankets provincial capital of Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia. Pic: AP Photo/Rony Muharrman

Singapore’s environment minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, flew to Jakarta today 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.

“People, to be honest with you, are angry,” Balakrishnan told reporters in Indonesia.

People want to see action on the ground.

Balakrishnan’s Indonesian counterpart, Balthasar Kambuaya, pledged that Jakarta will investigate and take stern legal action against those who started fires. Some Indonesian officials have suggested that Malaysian and Singaporean companies might be among those responsible.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, an official in Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency, said 10 aircraft were sent to Sumatra today to help extinguish the fires. Three helicopters will lead a “water-bombing” effort to assist more than 100 firefighters on the ground, while planes will conduct “cloud-seeding” to try to chemically induce rain.

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The dirty, acrid haze has slashed visibility and shrouded many of Singapore’s towering landmarks, forcing airports to take extra precautions, the military to reduce outdoor training and some fast food businesses to suspend delivery services. Elderly residents, children and pregnant women have been advised to avoid all outdoor activity.

A main street in Singapore’s Chinatown is covered with a thick haze. Pic: AP Photo/Joseph Nair

Plagued by the stifling smell of burning vegetation that crept even 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 as much as possible.

Some airports in Sumatra have closed because of poor visibility and pollution levels that exceeded Singapore’s.

In neighboring Malaysia, officials shut nearly 600 schools Friday in southern districts near Singapore. Most of Malaysia, including the main city, Kuala Lumpur, was not as badly affected, though two southernmost towns recorded hazardous air quality. Malaysia’s environment minister plans to travel to Indonesia next week to discuss the problem.

Read: Not much of a view: Singapore’s haze hits crisis levels>

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