updated 10/2/2006 12:09:42 PM ET 2006-10-02T16:09:42

Smoke and ash from land-clearing fires in Indonesia blanketed a large swath of the country’s west on Monday, sending air quality levels plummeting there and in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, officials said.

The smoke was shrouding an estimated 215,000 square miles of land on Indonesia’s islands of Sumatra and Borneo, forcing many residents to wear protective masks and delaying flights, officials and media reports said.

“The haze has persisted for a whole week,” said Frans Tandipau, a senior official tasked with extinguishing forest fires on Sumatra.

Fires from land-clearing activities in Sumatra and Borneo, and to a lesser extent Malaysia, have occurred almost every dry season since the late 1990s. They are typically set by people looking for a cheap way to clear brush for plantations.

In Singapore, air quality dropped to “moderate” on Monday from “good” on Sunday, due to the fires in Indonesia, the National Environment Agency said. Residents complained the air was “hazy.”

Borneo island hard-hit
Malaysia’s Department of Environment said that seven of its 51 monitoring stations nationwide recorded “unhealthy” air quality levels, 11 were “moderate,” and the remaining 33 had “good” air quality.

All seven worst-hit districts were on the Malaysian side of Borneo island.

Air quality levels had reached “dangerous” levels, from “unhealthy” last week, according to a monitoring station in Palangkaraya, state news agency Antara reported.

Indonesia has often been criticized by its neighbors for not tackling the problem.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has vowed to crack down on landowners who set fires illegally, but inefficient and corrupt local authorities are apparently unable or unwilling to stamp put the problem.

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