Disastrous fires will keep burning until Western consumers say no

Deep within the jungles of Indonesian Borneo, illegal fires rage, creating apocalyptic red skies and smoke that has spread as far as Malaysia and Singapore.

People are choking. Animals are dying.

This is no ordinary fire. It was lit for you.

Farmers are clearing land the fastest way they know how to cash in on growing demand for palm oil, which is used in half of all supermarket products, from chocolate to shampoo.

They’re not only burning the forest, they’re destroying the peatlands that lie beneath it — the world’s largest natural terrestrial carbon sink.

Experts say the annual infernos have ignited a climate bomb with disastrous consequences for the world in years to come.

And the fires will keep burning, they say, until Western consumers say no.

Firefighters work in tropical heat, breathing toxic air, for as little as $8 a day.

Some fires are so remote they must travel more than an hour in wooden boats loaded with equipment, then hike several miles through the jungle.

At the fire front, they dig makeshift wells and rig up generators to pump water to douse the flames.

“We are fighting here almost two weeks already … stay in here, sleep in here,” Krisyoyo, leader of a patrol team with the Center for International Sustainable Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP) says, as he hoses down flames. “The fire (is) coming I think from humans,” says Krisyoyo, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name.

About 9,000 firefighters were deployed to fight the fires on the ground this summer.

Helicopters are bombing them from above.

It boarded a Soviet-designed Mi-8 helicopter for a water-bombing mission near the epicenter of the fires over Central Kalimantan.

Ukrainian pilot Ivan Kravchenko hovered his aircraft over the Kahayan River and scooped up 4,000 liters of water in a giant bucket hanging from a hole in the floor of the chopper. It was then dumped on the flames — a process repeated dozens of times during our flight.

Kravchenko is one of a team of specialist pilots, many of whom have been brought in from Kazakhstan and Ukraine, who fly up to three missions a day.

“Whole time dangerous,” says Kravchenko. “Because it’s all flight at low altitude and sometimes in bad visibility, so we need to be very careful.”

They can never be sure if the fire is out.

Fires smolder deep underground in thick layers of dead plant matter –- peatlands — and can reignite almost as soon as they’re extinguished.

“When they start burning, it feels like a losing battle,” says Alpius Patanan, head of the local emergency operations division.

These fires were ignited by humans, but can only be put out by nature.

“My hope is rain will be coming faster, and rain hard,” Krisyoyo says. “Hopefully our forest (will) still (be) standing, for the future.”

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