The trail of destruction: A chronology of the fires

Down to Earth No. 35, November 1997, Forest Fires Special Supplement

This selective chronology, compiled mainly from press reports, follows the development of the 1997 fires, documents the government response and attempts to gives some indication of its impact on the population.


Many fires are already burning. Forestry Minister Djamaludin says big timber estate and plantations companies are 90% responsible for the air pollution. PT Torus Ganda, a plantation company operating in Riau, Sumatra, is the first company publicly accused of starting fires to clear land.

Smog reported in Riau.
21/8 East Timor's biggest fires for 5 years are reported, affecting 80,000 hectares from April to August. Small-scale farmers are blamed.

Agriculture Minister Sjarifuddin Baharsjah says 80% of fires are caused by plantation companies.
3/9 Environment Minister Sarwono calls fires "national disaster" but absolves indigenous peoples. Blames big company bosses.
5/9 Sarwono names 3 companies in Riau, says they are continuing to burn, despite the ban.
9/9 President Suharto reiterates ban on fires to clear land.
10/9 Sarwono reported to have met 40 timber tycoons including Bob Hasan, Prayogo and Salim who "pledged to stop all land clearing activities."
11/9 Over 100 uninhabited transmigrant homes on Central Kalimantan peat project reported burned.
12/9 Government announces cloud-seeding programme in 5 provinces: Jambi, Riau, West Sumatra, West Java and Central Sulawesi, to stop smoke and fill dams. In Central Sulawesi the dam is used to power PT Inco's nickel smelting operations.
13/9 Seven boat collisions reported in 3 months on the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan. Sarwono calls on the public and private sector to develop a "sense of urgency".
14/9 Governors are called to Jakarta, told to form 24 hour watch posts and co-ordinate efforts to stop fires.
15/9 Djamaludin names 50 companies in three province with fires in concessions. They are given 15 days to disprove the accusations.
Hundreds of hectares are burning in the Muara Teweh protected forests, Central Kalimantan. 11,000 hectares in 27 locations are reported to be burning in North Sulawesi, 430 hectares in South Sulawesi.
16/9 Suharto issues apology to neighbouring countries.
Batam island, Riau, still selling water to Singapore despite the drought.
17/9 State news agency Antara reports 300,000 hectares in 7 provinces have been destroyed.
Cloud-seeding planes can't take off because of poor visibility. Sarwono calls for evacuation of Rengat town, Riau, population 45,000, where there is zero visibility. [This did not happen. One wonders where the population would have gone had it done so...] More companies named by Forestry Ministry totalling 150.
18/9 Fires in Gunung Ciremai pine forests, West Java Companies named now total 176, including some that have only submitted applications to clear land. One of these is the powerful Salim Group.
19/9 Smog in Pontianak reported worst ever.
Slopes of Mounts Merapi and Merbabu in Central Java on fire.
Reforestation area in Bukit Soeharto, East Kalimantan, burning fiercely, plus local people's pepper and salak fruit plantations.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir declares state of emergency in Sarawak, orders Malaysian fire-fighters to be sent to affected areas in Indonesia.
WALHI calls for all planes to be mobilised, use Reforestation Fund to fight the fires, punish offenders.
ASEAN calls for international help to fight fires and smoke pollution.
20/9 ASEAN report says there is a risk of the destruction being on a similar scale to 1982/83 fire as the dry season continues; it says crop failures and rice shortfalls are likely next season because of the delay in planting crops.
Two vessels collide in Straits of Malacca due to poor visibility.
Worst ever air pollution recorded in Singapore.
Sarwono calls for review of land and forest use .
21/9 Malaysia sends 400 fire-fighters to Kalimantan and Sumatra.
100 demonstrators in Kuala Lumpur call for immediate action against the smog.
Mahathir orders 18 Malaysian companies in Sumatra and Kalimantan to help put out the fires, or have their names published.
Sales of medicine for diarrhoea, stomach upsets and masks up in Pontianak.
Fires burning part of Tanjung Puting Orang Utan rehabilitation centre, Central Kalimantan.
Teak forests, managed by state-owned company Perum Perhutani burning in Telagasari, Central Java.
22/9 154 people reported dead in West Papua, due to drought conditions, cholera and crops destroyed by frost in highland areas. Forest fires are hampering efforts of relief planes to get supplies to villages.
East Kalimantan Governor reports cholera and other sicknesses in the province. Water levels on the River Mahakam are low and supply boats cannot reach upstream areas.
23/9 First two deaths from smog officially announced. No details given. [This figure is not credible. No realsitic figures have been issued yet.]
Reports that tree roots and peat are burning underground.
60 schoolchildren collapse from inhaling smog in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan. Boat collision reported on Martapura River.
Forestry Minister Djamaludin asks ministers responsible for plantations and transmigration to withdraw licences of companies proven to have started fires.
24/9 32,000 people are reported to have severe respiratory problems.
Co-ordinating Minister for People's Welfare Azwar Anas calls it "natural disaster", denies the government was late in anticipating the fires.
Masks sell out in Pekanbaru, Riau.
25/9 1,000 Malaysian fire-fighters land in Sumatra to help Indonesian colleagues.
WWF Indonesia estimates 500-600,000 hectares are destroyed or still on fire.
Government allocates Rp 3.1 billion (US$1.07million) including Rp 2.6 billion from the Reforestation Fund.
WALHI sets up action centres in West Kalimantan and other provinces. Reports of famine in parts of West Kalimantan.
26/9 Garuda plane crashes in North Sumatra en route from Jakarta to Medan. All 234 passengers and crew are killed. Among the dead are Polar Tanoto, President of PT Inti Indorayon Utama pulp mill, North Sumatra.
Suharto orders 4 million civil servants to join fire-fighting efforts. World Bank offers assistance.
Jakarta Post says at least 800,000 hectares have been affected by fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra.
Jambi, provincial capital of 300,000, is surrounded by fires within a few miles of the town.
Bromo National Park, East Java burning.
Reports that 50 schoolchildren collapse from smog. In East Kalimantan, at least 10,000 people are suffering respiratory illness.
Abdurracham Wahid, leader of largest Muslim organisation, accuses local officials of "doing nothing at all".
Reports that peat has caught fire in Sumatra.
27/9 WWF director-general calls the fires " a planetary disaster".
Scientists warn of impact on global warming and immediate weather patterns.
28/9 Oil company Caltex evacuates workers from its hospital in Riau to Singapore.
29/9 Minister Azwar Anas says Indonesia can't be sued.
Some rain reported.
World Health Organisation warns about health impacts of the smoke, short-term and long-term cancer implications.
Two ship collisions in Straits of Malacca, 29 people missing.
Malaysian fire-fighters reported sent to wrong areas, where fires have already been put out.
30/9 Ruteng National Park and people's plantations burning in Nusa Tenggara Timor province, eastern Indonesia.
Government announces that 50,000 masks are to be distributed each to nine provinces.
Timber magnate Bob Hasan appeals to Indonesian Timber Association (MPI) members to help overcome smog and help people affected by it. He says MPI has given RP 20 billion to help victims and 500,000 masks.
UN fund for victims is set up.
In the Sumatran province of Jambi alone, 41,000 people have diarrhoea and 24,000 respiratory infections.
Forestry Ministry figures say up to September 29, 70,000 hectares burned, 15,000 in East Kalimantan.

Forestry Minister Djamaludin has offered resignation.
SiaR reports that Suharto's son Bambang, plans to import water bombing planes from Canada at grossly inflated price.
Fires reported in Mount Rinjani National Park, Lombok, smoke threatens Bali tourist trade.
2/10 Water supplies in Pontianak running low.
3/10 Forestry Minister suspends 151 licences of 29 plantation and timber companies for failing to present reports proving they had not started fires in their concessions.
4/10 The Economist reports that the area affected by smoke has reached more than 3,200 km East to West, affecting up to 70 million people throughout the region.
5/10 President Suharto issues second apology to neighbours.
8/10 Anti-forest fires statement issued by NGOs and students, called ASAP-Hutan. Call for cancellation of all timber concessions, timber barons to be tried and a government apology to the nation.
World Vision Indonesia estimates that 200,000 people are affected by food shortages in West Papua and expect the situation to get worse over the next two months. 413 deaths from starvation and cholera are reported in the territory.
10/10 12 people in Donggala district, South Sulawesi reported to have died from hunger, more than 2,000 more threatened.
13/10 US water-bombers attack fires in Java. The team admits it can do little to put out underground fires.
14/10 Companies are still deliberately starting fires, according to news reports. Satellite photos show 62 more fires started since October 12, in Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.
15/10 German expert predicts the drought may last till January, contradicting more optimistic reports of rain in November. Warnings of food shortages and famine as a result.
19/10 Boat collision on Barito River, leaves four dead, 21 missing, with visibility at 3 - 5 metres.

Note: the chronology is selective only. Some dates may be approximate.