I’m writing this in Jakarta airport on my way to Sumatra where hundreds of bushfires are raging out of control – damaging belongings and lungs halfway across Asia. Thousands of Indonesian soldiers (some say 20,000) have been flown into the area to fight forest fires which, according to NASA, are on track to become the worst on record.
One night last week – a thousand miles away in northern Sulawesi – I was woken by a series of horrific screams. My guide Elvis Pangemanan and I ran out of the cold-water flophouse we were staying in into the eerie glow and roar of leaping flames. A family home in the little Central Sulawesi village had caught fire. The lady of the house was gasping and sobbing in the smoke when I helped her to safety.
Luckily nobody was left in the house. We kicked the door of the house next door down and carried all the possessions out of reach of the fire. As it turned out this double-storey breeze-block house was all that stood as a barrier between the 20-foot flames and the row of six wooden houses that stood downwind.
We helped the villagers do what they could to halt the fire (and drag a car out of the way) but by morning all the family’s belongings and home were just smouldering ashes.
The nearest fire brigade was a 6-hour drive away and there was nobody with any fire-fighting experience. We’re at the end of a long dry season and all over Indonesia scenes of this sort must be taking place. In a country this size it’s clearly impossible to have a fire brigade in each village but surely something could be done to provide basic training for remote communities.
Will it take the world’s worst recorded fires to provoke western charities into helping with an economic and health tragedy that is transcending national and regional boundaries to become a global problem?