PEKANBARU, Indonesia - Hundreds held a mass prayer for rain in a smoke-filled Indonesian city on Friday, desperately hoping that downpours will extinguish forest fires and wash away toxic haze covering wide swathes of the country that has forced mass school closures.
Illegal fires to clear land for farming are raging on Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo islands with firefighters battling round the clock through charred forests, and water-bombing helicopters deployed to douse the flames.
Dense smoke has blanketed Pekanbaru, a provincial capital on Sumatra, leaving the sky dark even at midday and residents fearing for their health.
Around 1,000 Pekanbaru residents -- many dressed in white Muslim robes with rudimentary face masks -- held a prayer Friday in an open field as a thick, acrid fog drifted around them.
"I'm praying so that the rain will come immediately and this smog will be gone soon," said retired 57-year-old civil servant Rahmad, who goes by one name.
"It's been really bad for the past month -- I can't breathe if I don't wear a mask. Some of my neighbors have gotten really sick," he told AFP.
Friday is a holy day in Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim-majority country, where forest fires are an annual problem but have been worsened this year by particularly dry weather.
Fatimah El-Kareem, a 26-year-mother, fled Pekanbaru with her baby over health fears.
"I was so worried. My child is only one year old and still so vulnerable," she told AFP by telephone from hometown in another part of Sumatra.
"The smog isn't only suffocating, but it smells terrible... Every morning it was just getting worse and worse -- you couldn't get any fresh air," she added.
International concern has been mounting about the long-term impact of such blazes, as rainforests play a vital role in protecting the planet against global warming.
'Never been this tired'
"The haze really affects me tremendously. I can't breathe or do things outside as I normally do," elementary school teacher Yulinar said at the mass prayer, coughing and squinting her bloodshot eyes.
The 45-year-old, who also uses one name, said she hoped she and her students could soon return to their shuttered school.
The governor of smog-hit Central Kalimantan on Borneo island -- which Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei -- said Friday nearly 3,900 schools would be closed temporarily to protect students, with more than 9,000 shuttered in Sumatra.
Officials across the border in Malaysia said dozens of schools would be closed on Friday in the region surrounding its haze-hit capital Kuala Lumpur.
Back in Sumatra, Hendri Kusnardi was among thousands of firefighters deployed to battle the blazes.
"We're working non-stop," said the 25-year-old, dirty and drenched in sweat.
"I've never been this tired. But I'm not the only one -- everyone's exhausted."
The fires in Indonesia have sent toxic smoke floating over Malaysia, triggering a diplomatic row, as nearby Singapore has also warned residents to reduce outdoor activities.
Frictions spiked after Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin this week accused her Indonesian counterpart of being "in denial", after Jakarta insisted fires in Malaysia had caused the smog there.
On Friday, Indonesia said it had sealed off dozens of plantations where smog-belching fires are blazing, and warned that owners -- including Malaysia and Singapore-based firms -- could face criminal charges if the investigation turns up evidence of illegal burning.
Jakarta is struggling to tame the blazes as many burn underground in carbon-rich peat, which has been cleared across vast areas of the country for plantations.
"I hope farmers and companies stop starting these fires," Rahmad said in Pekanbaru. "It's a man-made disaster."