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El Nino-Fueled Drought May Cause More Destructive Wildfires to Ignite Across Indonesia During Winter

Despite recent rain, the effects of the fires that have been ravaging Indonesia since July have left much of the country in an ecological disaster.

The fires have taken a toll on the environment with 5.1 million acres scorched. They are also responsible for, "21 deaths, more than half a million people sickened with respiratory problems and $9 billion in economic losses, from damaged crops to hundreds of cancelled flights," The Associated Press said.

The AP added that nearly 20,000 schools, affecting around 2.4 million students, had to close due to the fires.

Endangered or threatened species such as orangutans were also at risk as the flames burned down their habitats.

"In late October, the Pollution Standards Index hit a record high of 3,300 in Central Kalimantan province in Borneo, the giant island Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei. Anything above 300 is deemed hazardous," AP stated.

Fires are intentionally started by farmers each year to clear land for new planting, especially palm oil. Highly flammable peat soil is common in these areas, causing fires to spread rapidly and making them difficult to stop.

According to AP, Indonesia used many ways/tactics in order to fight the fires from helicopters to using elephants outfitted with water pumps.

A prolonged dry season, driven by El Niño, has exacerbated the fires across Indonesia.

"When El Niño is in full swing, as it has been since July when the fires began burning, typical showers and thunderstorms that bring vital rainfall to the region are often suppressed, and monthly rainfall departures end up well below normal," AccuWeather Meteorologist Anthony Sagliani said.

"So because there are less showers and thunderstorms, there is less moisture in the ground," Sagliani said. "That makes it easier for fires to burn and more difficult to put them out."

The fires have died down from recent rain. However, Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told Reuters that the fires could emerge as early as February.

"As El Niño continues into the winter months, we expect below-normal precipitation to persist across the region through March, and thus the likelihood for the fires continuing to burn is higher than normal," Sagliani said.