Haze blanketing parts of Indonesia has taken the lives of 19 people in the last two months as thousands of fires caused by slash-and-burn farming have choked vast areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Social Affairs Minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa said on Wednesday that the death toll had increased from 10 people as previously reported by the he National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB).
'Nineteen people have died from the effects of haze as of [Wednesday] morning,' she said.
More than 500,000 people have been severely affected by the disaster, with thousands, mostly children, hospitalized for severe respiratory issues brought on by the haze.
However, the number of hot spots indicating forest fires has plunged drastically thanks to rain in Sumatra and Kalimantan in the past couple of days, making the government optimistic that the fires will end next month.
According to data from the BNPB, the number of hot spots has dropped to 507 from 3,226 last week, when forest fires spread to the eastern part of the country.
'Yesterday's rain reduced the number of hot spots very significantly, as well as increasing visibility in a number of cities with airports,' BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said in a coordination meeting at his office in East Jakarta on Wednesday.
Sumatra, which still had thousands of hot spots last week, only had 10 hot spots as of Wednesday, with Riau and Jambi having zero hot spots, followed by Bengkulu and Lampung with three hot spots each and South Sumatra with four.
Kalimantan still has the largest number of hot spots, with 138, according to BNPB data, 127 of which were in East Kalimantan, while Central Kalimantan only had nine hot spots and West and South Kalimantan had one hot spot each.
The rain also helped to increase visibility in many cities, including Pekanbaru, which previously were forced to suspend airport operations as flights could not be accommodated in low visibility caused by thick smoke.
'Commercial flights have resumed this morning, but only Batik Air. As for Garuda Indonesia, they have stopped their flights [to Riau] until October 31,' acting Riau governor Arsyadjuliandi 'Andi' Rachman reported during the meeting.
Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, who also attended the teleconference meeting, ordered Andi to allow aircraft from Garuda Indonesia to land.
'If the visibility is already 2,000 meters, just tell them to land. It's already possible,' he said.
Luhut also ordered all regional governments to be alert to the possibility of intensifying rainfall in the coming weeks, as the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) predicted rain would begin to fall on regions affected by haze in November.
The retired general urged local administrations to deploy planes for cloud-seeding to induce rain. 'We are talking about a window of opportunity of mere hours, because clouds will appear for only one or two hours,' he said.
President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo is set to personally lead the government's haze countermeasures when he returns to Indonesia from a brief visit to the US. He is expected to stay in the affected regions, such as South Sumatra, Jambi and Central Kalimantan, to oversee operations.