As Turkish fire crews continued their week-long battle on Tuesday against fires ravaging forests and villages on the country’s southern coast, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has come under increasing criticism for its response apparently poor and inadequate preparation for large-scale forest fires.
Fueled by high winds and scorching temperatures, the fires that started on Wednesday have left eight people dead and forced thousands of residents and tourists to flee homes or resorts in boats or convoys of cars and trucks . Charred and blackened trees replaced some of the pine-covered hills of Turkey’s Turquoise Coast as many villagers lost their homes and livestock.
As of Tuesday, firefighters were still battling 11 fires in six provinces, including the coastal provinces of Antalya and Mugla, which are popular tourist destinations. More than 150 fires that have broken out in more than 30 provinces since Wednesday have been extinguished, officials said.
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A senior Turkish forestry official described the forest fires as the worst in Turkey in living memory, although he could not say how many hectares of forest land the fires had devoured. He also couldn’t estimate how long it would take crews to put out the fires, saying strong winds rekindle flames that had previously been brought under control. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with government regulations.
As residents lost their homes and livestock, anger turned to the government, which admitted it did not have a fleet of usable firefighting planes. Opposition parties have accused the government of failing to purchase firefighting planes and of spending money on construction projects they say are harmful to the environment.
In the village of Bozalan in Mugla province, where houses and olive trees were cremated, residents complained about the government’s insufficient response.
“Our fire extinguishing helicopters were insufficient,” said Mahmut Sanli, 58. “If there had been a fire brigade in our neighborhood, this would not have happened.”
Nevzat Yildirim, 30, said he called authorities in Mugla for help, but “nothing came”.
“We tried to protect our own homes on our own, by filling buckets. We organized ourselves with neighbors, young people and saved our homes,” he said.
In the nearby village of Cokertme, Gulseli Karaduman was seen using a fire extinguisher to save his olive trees.
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“There was no air support, nothing. For three days, we have lived in this helplessness,” she said.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, accused Erdogan of not having a “master plan” to prevent and fight forest fires and of ignoring warnings about global warming.
“We must immediately start preparing our country for new climate crises. Our country is in the grip of a climate and water crisis,” he said.
Erdogan’s government has also been accused of undermining firefighting efforts by allegedly denying aid from Western countries during the early stages of the fires. But an official said the government had only turned down offers for small planes that drop water.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday that Turkey accepts all offers that meet its needs. France and Greece have also offered to send planes that drop fires, but were later forced to retract them due to the fires that broke out there, he said.
“In the event of a disaster, of course we would accept help from other countries in the same way we provide aid to other countries,” he said.
The Israeli embassy, however, said on Tuesday that Israel had offered to help but Turkish officials had refused the offer, saying “the situation is under control.” He said the offer is still valid.
Mayors posted videos advocating for aerial response responses to local wildfires as celebrities joined a social media campaign calling for foreign aid to fight the fires. The campaign elicited an angry reaction from a senior Erdogan official, Fahrettin Altun, who said: “Our Turkey is strong. Our state is strong.
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Erdogan himself has been accused of insensitivity after throwing tea bags at residents of a bus during a weekend visit to the fires-hit Antalya region.
Planes sent from Spain and Croatia joined planes from Russia, Iran, Ukraine and Azerbaijan on Tuesday. A total of 16 planes, 51 helicopters and more than 5,000 people were fighting the fires.
Authorities evacuated residents from dozens of vacation homes on Tuesday as the flames progressed towards the Turkevleri area, near the town of Milas, in Mugla province.
Authorities have opened investigations into the cause of the fires, including possible sabotage by Kurdish militants. A 16-year-old was arrested on Tuesday in connection with a fire that broke out in the Manavgat region of Antalya on Wednesday, pro-government newspaper Sabah reported.
Experts, however, mostly point to climate change as the culprit, along with accidents caused by people.
A heat wave in southern Europe, fueled by warm air from North Africa, has caused forest fires in the Mediterranean, especially in Italy and Greece.
The Turkish meteorological authority has warned that temperatures will rise 4 to 8 degrees Celsius above seasonal norms around the country’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
In Greece, thousands of people fled their homes north of Athens by car and motorbike as a forest fire broke out outside the forest and reached residential areas. The blaze sent a huge cloud of smoke over Athens and caused multiple evacuations near Tatoi, 12 and a half miles to the north.
In Italy, firefighters fought seven major fires in Calabria, Sicily, Basilicata and Puglia, using planes near Matera, Basilicata and around three fires in Calabria.
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The mayor of Altamura, near the southern Italian town of Bari, advised residents to keep windows closed after a fire broke out in a warehouse at a plastics factory. A helicopter was dispatched near the town of Pescara in Abruzzo to prevent a forest fire from reaching a petrol depot, as industrial production sites were threatened in the region’s foothills.
Italian firefighters have fought more than 37,000 fires since June 15, a 76% increase from last year when nearly 155,000 acres were destroyed, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
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