By Randy Fabi and Bernadette Christina
JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's forest fires, which this year sent vast plumes of smoke across the region described by climate officials as a "crime against humanity", could return as early as February, the forestry minister said on Friday, but on not such a large scale.
Slash-and-burn agriculture, much of it clearing land for palm oil crops, blanketed Singapore, Malaysia and northern Indonesia in a choking "haze" for months, pushing up pollution levels and disrupting flights, as it does every year.
But this year was unusually severe.
Indonesian efforts to halt the fires, often deliberately set by plantation companies and smallholders, have come to nothing and the air has cleared over the region in recent days only because of heavy rain.
"In the third week of February, hotspots will emerge again, so indeed there won't be a break," minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told Reuters on the sidelines of a haze conference. "We are going to put in a better early warning system and improve our contact with private concession holders. Before, it was not really working."
Bakar also said the government would increase the number of firefighters and equipment on the ground, but did not elaborate.
Experts have questioned the will and capacity of the government to address the problem after decades of inaction. Indonesia sought foreign help and sent tens of thousands of personnel to fight the fires, but they did little to help.
The fires were exacerbated this year by the effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon, as a prolonged dry season in Indonesia parched the top soil, fuelling the flames.
Bakar said El Nino would ease in northern Indonesia over the next few months and cause fewer fires on peat land, which typically produce more smog than burning forests.
She said Indonesia would not likely need foreign assistance this time around.
"We have to put our efforts first on overcoming the situation. From our experience last time, we can manage the hotspots from February to April, and even to June," Bakar said.
At the conference, Vice President Jusuf Kalla said it would likely take the government five years to solve the forest fire problem.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)