Malaysians pray for rain over haze

From CNN of Friday, August 12, 2005

A photo shows Kuala Lumpur with clear skies in January, left, and as it appears on August 10.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Reuters) -- Malaysians prayed for rain on Friday and a quick end to the country's worst pollution crisis in eight years as residents choked on acrid forest-fire smoke blowing in from neighboring Indonesia.
As the call to prayers echoed from mosques around this mainly Muslim country, the premier called for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus to beg divine intervention to wash the skies of a week-long haze that has threatened public health.
"When something like this happens, we have to ask for God's help," Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was quoted as saying in Malay-language newspaper Utusan Malaysia on Friday.
There were early signs on Friday of an easing in the haze, which has sent asthma attacks soaring, forced schools to close, grounded some flights and disrupted shipping. But a weather forecaster cautioned that the haze might merely have shifted.
In Malaysia's biggest port, one of two areas declared an emergency zone on Thursday, the sun still appeared as a feeble orange disc through the smog but visibility had improved markedly, a slight breeze blew and fewer people wore face masks.
But northwest of the capital in Kuala Selangor, the second area put on an emergency footing on Thursday, a Reuters journalist said the smog still appeared thick but not as bad as Thursday, when air-pollution readings soared well into the hazardous zone.
Sore throats and red eyes are commonplace and face masks are the capital's hottest seller. The haze has also threatened the country's tourism industry at an important time when big-spending Middle East visitors flock to country.
In Sumatra, a short ferry ride away from peninsular Malaysia, fires still raged, some of them deep in thick forests which would take more than a day to reach without the aid of helicopters, said a local police chief at Rokan Hilir, where fires have been burning through swampy, remote country.
"The equipment we use is conventional. We spray water on the fire...Today the condition is better than the past few days," Rokan Hilir Police Chief Zulkifli told Reuters by telephone.
"As for the fire far inside the forest, we will need one to one-and-a-half days to get there. We don't have helicopters."
Malaysia plans to send 100 firefighters to Sumatra to help Indonesia douse the flames.
Air-pollution readings in Malaysia have yet to match the dangerous levels of 1997 when mainly Indonesian fires blotted out skies across Southeast Asia, badly hurting tourism. Singapore and even many parts of peninsular Malaysia, including many beach resorts, have been spared this time.
But the haze has forced hundreds of schools to close in and around the Malaysian capital and also hit some key industrial sites, forcing Port Klang, Malaysia's biggest port, and an airport close to Kuala Lumpur to close for several hours.
Representatives of Malaysian hotels and travel agents were due to meet the tourism ministry on Friday for talks on how to handle the problem. Australia warned its tourists of extremely hazardous levels of haze in some areas around Kuala Lumpur.
Fears of a prolonged crisis have hit parts of the stock market, with shares in Malaysia's two major airlines, Malaysian Airline System Bhd and AirAsia Bhd, falling 4.9 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively, this week. Malaysian Airports Holdings has lost 6 percent.
Light rain fell in parts of central Malaysia overnight on Thursday, clearing some smog, and a forecast change in prevailing south-westerly winds could also help, Malaysia's weather bureau said on Friday, but it warned this could be very temporary.
In the two emergency areas, the government can order closure of state and private-sector offices, but essential services, such as markets, clinics and hospitals, will stay open. It can also limit the use of private vehicles and ban open bonfires.
Subang airport, where planes were grounded during Thursday's closure, was open again on Friday as visibility improved.
Port Klang operators said they were operating as usual on Friday. "Everything is normal now," said an official with Northport, one of two Port Klang operators.