The extensive dry season forest fires of Southeast Asia and South America between 1996 and 1998 created blankets of acrid smoke affecting population centres across a wide region, raising urban dry-season pollution levels to within a few points of crisis condition. The smoke from the forest fires traps transport and industrial fumes to create noxious smog. The heavy smoke, described as a choking haze, a shroud of ash, a pall of smoke caused widespread health problems especially among the elderly, young and infirm, and in many places reduced visibility to arm's length. Besides major health effects, the smog effectively halted air and sea travel over wide regions, closed schools and substantially disrupted tourist bookings in affected areas. In Brazil, Yanomami Indians threatened by approaching fires considered the red sun effect through the smoke haze an imminent sign of the apocalypse.
The smog resulting from Indonesian forest fires in 1997 affected six Southeast Asian nations, forcing the closing of airports and contributing to ship collisions because of the poor visibility, and cutting deeply into the tourism industry. It also caused widespread health problems and led to the evacuation of many foreign diplomats and executives. The Malaysian government imposed emergency restrictions on driving, burning and the outdoor activities of schoolchildren. In the Malaysian part of Borneo, schoolchildren were wearing masks to school. Thousands of Indonesians fell ill because of thick smoke from forest fires in East Kalimantan Province in 1998. Visibility in a near city dropped to 100 meters and residents had to don face masks to fend off choking smog. Smoke from the fires caused 297 causes of pneumonia and several people died as a result.
Between 1996-98 uncontrolled wildfires swept through forests in Brazil, Canada, China's north-eastern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, France, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Turkey, the Russian Federation and the United States. The health impacts of forest fires can be serious. The estimated health cost of forest fires to the people of Southeast Asia was US$1 400 million.
The health impacts of forest fires can be serious and widespread. Estimates for the fall-out from fires in Southeast Asia suggest that 20 million people were in danger of respiratory problems. The estimated health cost to the people of Southeast Asia was US$1 400 million, mostly related to short-term health problems (EEPSEA/WWF 1998). In 1997, smoke and air pollution from fires in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico drifted across much of the southeastern United States, prompting Texas officials to issue a health warning to residents.
1. During the forest fires there was no sky in Borneo and often no hint of the sun. The air, heave with smoke, strained the eyes and limited visibility, often to a few hundred metres. Every leaf in the vast tropical rain forest was dotted with fine ash. When the sun did appear, it shone through the smoky, gray-brown haze like a neon dinner plate. Eerily, waves of smoke blew across the bright disk, then made it disappear entirely. It was an environmental apocalypse.
2. Breathing air during the haze in Malaysia in 1997 was equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day.