Thanksgiving joke is carved in Indonesia U.S. firefighting crews once joked about staying through the holiday

November 27, 1997|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- When Col. Harold Reed arrived here in mid-October for a 30-day mission fighting the forest fires smoking up Southeast Asia, he warned local U.S. Embassy officials: They would owe him Thanksgiving dinner if he didn't make it home in time.

It was supposed to be a joke. But today, Reed and his airborne fire-fighting crews will be eating their turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie alongside embassy families at the American Club in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

Smoke from the fires has drifted over six Southeast Asian countries in recent months, forcing people to wear surgical masks and stay indoors. It has crippled tourism in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and taken a deadly toll on orangutans and other wildlife in Indonesia's lush tropical forests.

U.S. and Indonesian officials have credited the C-130 crews led by Reed, of the Wyoming Air National Guard, with playing a key behind-the-scenes role in bringing some of the worst fires under control in recent days.

"The crews have been doing a tremendous job," said Craig Stromme, a U.S. Embassy spokesman. "It's an effort that all Americans should be proud of."

Their weapons are a pair of U.S. Forest Service C-130 cargo planes equipped with 3,000-gallon tanks, which carry water or fire retardant chemicals. A third C-130 helps direct operations, aided by satellite photos that have pinpointed the biggest fires.

For the past five weeks, the U.S. crews have been in the skies over Indonesia almost every day, logging more than 250 flight hours and 200 sorties, dropping more than 130,000 gallons of fire retardant chemicals and 410,000 gallons of water. They've put out 25 fires on the main Indonesian island of Java and more on Sumatra.

"When we first got here, the smoke and haze was so bad it was pretty dangerous," said Reed. "Now, we're flying in nature's clouds, not man-made clouds. The conditions are improving every day."

For Air National Guard and Forest Service crews used to operating in the rugged Rocky Mountain pine forests of the Western United States, the tropical forests and peat bogs of Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan have offered an exotic change of pace.

Instead of saving million-dollar holiday homes, the crews have been battling to defend the humble homesteads of slash-and-burn farmers along with big palm-oil plantations, whose land-clearing practices are blamed for many of the fires.

From the air, it's clear to the U.S. crews that most of the fires have been set by landowners trying to clear forests. It's an ancient practice here in Indonesia, but a drought blamed on El Nino weather disturbances this year has caused many of the fires to rage out of control, consuming at least 3.5 million acres, and possibly twice that much.

"These fires are less intense than what we're used to seeing in the United States, but cover a lot more area," said William Krausmann, a U.S. Forest Service scientist assigned to the mission.

The crews have been helped by some scattered rain showers over the fire-plagued areas in recent days, breaking a six-month drought that helped the fires spread over huge swathes of the Indonesian countryside. Still, the heavy monsoon rains, which normally arrive in November, are not expected until March or April, Krausmann said.

The U.S. C-130 crews are planning to squeeze in a few more flights after the Thanksgiving holiday, then head for home. Christmas in Indonesia isn't part of the plan.

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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