Americans help fight fires in Indonesia Air National Guard dumps water on burning forests

October 23, 1997|By NEWSDAY

SUMBER BRANTAS, Indonesia -- This mountain village on the eastern end of Java was shrouded in a thick pall of smoke as usual, when Maj. Michael Exstrom of the Wyoming Air National Guard brought his C-130 to about 150 feet and bombed the smoldering pine forest fire with 24,000 pounds of water.

Several sorties later, the 1,200 farmers who make up the village breathed a bit easier as an afternoon gale helped lift the smoke, and some people dared to hope that they have escaped the worst of one of the country's many forest fires.

For two months, smoke from the fires has blanketed much of southeast Asia, adding a public health disaster to the region's growing economic woes.

Water-bombing continued yesterday over the smoldering pine forests of the volcanic mountains 60 miles south of Surabaja as a 60-member team of U.S. Air National Guardsmen and U.S. Forest Service officers formally joined an international effort to contain Indonesia's disastrous fires.

The Guardsmen are from the 153rd Air Wing out of Cheyenne, Wyo., while the Forest Service deployed personnel from Colorado, Tennessee and Alaska.

"What we are going to try to do is protect certain towns, and assets like oil tanks and so on," said Col. Harold Reed, commander of the Guard unit. "Hopefully, Mother Nature will help us out, bring a lot of rain to finish the job."

So far, Mother Nature has offered nothing beyond a few scattered rains that have done little to pacify the fires consuming about 3,000 square miles of dense jungle as well as burning underground in peat bogs, mostly on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Once the first plane dumps its 3,000 gallons of water -- loaded from a fetid and stagnant canal parallel to Surabaja airport's runway -- the second aircraft immediately bombs the same spot with a sheet of water measuring roughly 60 feet by 300 feet.

Ideally, a local ground crew then tours the area to keep the doused fires from reigniting, though this has not happened yet.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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