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If there's fire, there'll be smoke in Asia

Southeast Asia could soon be blanketed by more smoke haze as bush and forest fires spread again across Indonesia, scientists said on Thursday.

If the fires gain a foothold in Sumatra and Kalimantan - where many new "hot spots" have been reported this week - Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand and the Philippines could see a repeat of the severe air pollution that blotted out the sun at the end of last year.That could spell disaster for regional economies already battered by a currency and banking crisis, economists said.

In Jakarta, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations secretariat proposed steps to fight the smog, saying an action plan would be in place by mid-1998, with computer links between weather stations so all member nations could share satellite images, wind charts and air quality data.

Three months of choking, yellow smog between September and November caused a dramatic fall in visitors to the region, official figures show, and the impact on the economies from lost working days due to sickness is only just being calculated.

Indonesian officials on Thursday reported more than 90 areas affected by resurgent bush fires in Sumatra and Borneo island, aggravated by lack of normal monsoon rain.

"The fires continue in Sumatra and Kalimantan. A lack of rain in those regions worsens the problem," a forest fire coordinating bureau official in Jakarta said.

Most of the fires are started by small Indonesian farmers clearing bush for crops and by companies that burn the jungle after logging to make way for new palm oil plantations.

This "slash and burn" process has been used for decades, but in the past few years, land clearance has accelerated and drought, made worse by the recent El Nino weather pattern that has parched crops across Asia, has helped spread the fires.

Unfortunately for Indonesia's Southeast Asian neighbors, most land clearance happens in Indonesia's dry season from May to October when the wind tends to blow north toward them.

Pressure groups reacted quickly to news of the latest fires, with one business-sponsored environmental group saying the smog could hit Singapore some four months earlier than last year.

"If this place starts clouding over when the monsoons change in late April, they don't get more rain in Indonesia and keep slashing and burning, this place is going to see about nine months of no sun," Peyton Coffin, chairman of the Preserve Planet Earth Committee, told Reuters.

Criticism of a slow response by governments to the smog pollution last year prompted several regional initiatives that scientists say may speed up firefighting.