Fires in Turkey: “It was hell, everything burned down” | International

Turkey has been burning for 12 days due to the worst blazes in decades. So far this year, more than 160,000 hectares of forest have burned, four times more than usual at this time of the season, according to records from the European Forest Fire Information Service. The fire engulfed forests and grasslands, especially in the southwest of the country, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of Turks. In addition, eight people died, trapped by the flames or as they struggled to keep the fire from spreading.

Smoke blankets half of the Yatagan Valley (Mugla Province), turning the sun into an orange ball, and the mid-afternoon light takes on a Martian hue. Dozens of tractors come from the villages pulling rusting cisterns for various uses – one reads “Yilmaz Oils” – but now they are loaded with water to help firefighters battling the blaze. Along a narrow mountain road between rocks and huge boulders, they go to the town of Haciveliler where, a few kilometers up the mountain, the fire broke out. “We can’t go through here, the flames are getting closer and it’s very dangerous”, warns a gendarme at the end of the city. Two Turkish helicopters and a Russian plane work from the air, but the wind is treacherous and the flames descend from the hill, forcing the evacuation of several villages. After a few hours, from the main road, three TOMA, armored police trucks equipped with pressurized water jets which are normally used to suppress protests and which now, with the fire season, have found the best use.

“The older ones were very worried. But we young people got organized, climbed the mountain and put out a tongue of fire so it wouldn’t affect the beehives we have there. We lost a lot of forest, at least we saved the animals and now the fire is progressing more slowly,” says Yigit, a teenager from Haciveliler. He has not slept for two nights because he participates in village festivals organized to protect the mountain against possible arsonists, to whom the fires are attributed.

That of Yatagan is one of the last fires declared in Turkey, Friday, and Sunday it had not yet been brought under control. Affected by extreme temperatures and intense drought, the vegetation that populates the slopes of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast has become a highly flammable material. Thus, since July 28, more than 220 fires have broken out, most of which have been brought under control. In Antalya province, where some 60,000 hectares have been scorched, rain made its appearance on Saturday, helping to put out the blaze, and was received by people in the streets praying with gratitude. However, six major fires are still active, including five in Mugla province, where adverse weather conditions and strong winds not only made it more difficult to fight the fire, but also some fires caused by virtually extinguished are resurrected.

This is the case of the one that touches the mountains south of the Milas district, which the strong gusts of air revived on Saturday and which spread until they threatened a thermal power station for the second time. On top of one of the affected mountains is the village of Feslegen, saved in extremis be engulfed in a ring of fire.

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“The fire came from very far away, it originated about 25 kilometers away. Some say it was an electric spark or that they caused it. I don’t know. From there it advanced to surround the village almost like a ring,” says elder Osman Balat. “I have never seen such a big fire in my life and I am 83 years old and have a good memory. I still remember when I was four or five years old and the Germans had taken over the world,” he adds. His cattle were taken to safety in a van and sent to another nearby village and he himself was evacuated. His son Zeki was left alone, fighting the fire. “The fire came from below, through the roots of the harvest.” Osman points to the farm where his son finally won the battle, clearly showing the line where the scorched ground ends. By stirring up the ground, shoveling dirt and buckets of water, he managed to put out the fire. “The neighbor caught a spark and burned down his warehouse because he had it full of manure. Thank God the barn has not reached us, which is attached to the house”.

The area around Feslegen is already ghost territory. There is practically no color, these are forests in the entire gray range from white to black. The wind raises gusts of dense ash that sticks to the skin. Etrugrul turns among the trees, as if lost, destroyed before so much destruction. He is a country man and it is his livelihood, almost his whole life, that has burned down. “It was hell, everything burned down: our villages, our animals, our barns, our lives. It’s something you wouldn’t want God to do to your worst enemy,” he laments: “I lost my olive trees, the pastures for my animals, I saved my house, but what will I live on now? Here we are dedicated to raising cattle and bees. But the animals don’t can’t graze here anymore and the bees are dead or gone. There’s no pine trees, there’s no honey. Life is over. It’s terrible; A shame.”

Mugla is known in Turkey not only as one of its tourist engines (sun and beach), but also for its agricultural production and in particular honey. Up to 80% of the pine honey consumed in the country is produced in this province. According to experts quoted by the local press, some 5,000 hives would have burned in the fires. Moreover, by burning the vast forests of this province, the survival of the hellenic marcha tiny insect that feeds on the sap of pine trees and whose secretions, in turn, feed the bees that produce pine honey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has assured that all victims will be financially compensated, although for many these promises are not of great consolation. According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, more than 3,000 cattle and some 50,000 birds died in the fires and, in Mugla province alone, some 350 buildings were razed or badly damaged by fire. The state-owned company TOKI will build new houses for those who have lost them, granting credit facilities to their owners. “Some citizens who have old houses wish their houses had burned down,” Mehnet Özeren, a mayor from the ruling AKP party, said in remarks that were used as an example of the executive’s lack of sensitivity towards those affected. .

Ahmet, a neighborhood youth who prefers not to give his real name, rightly complains that the government’s response to the fires was late and insufficient: “Why didn’t they send in the army? Normally, when there is a natural disaster like this, the army is the first to arrive. If they had acted sooner, so many forests would not have been burned.

Estimated hectares of forest burned in each country.  In red the figure corresponding to 2021, in blue the figure corresponding to the average between 2008 and 2020.
Estimated hectares of forest burned in each country. In red the figure corresponding to 2021, in blue the figure corresponding to the average between 2008 and 2020.

Many believe that part of the neglect has to do with the fact that the areas most affected by the fire are opposition electoral strongholds. Erdogan, in turn, accused local councils in the region of not doing enough, but they reminded him that forest protection is constitutionally mandated to the central state.

In Turkey’s polarized political environment, everyone is looking for blame in different sectors. In the pro-government press, there is talk of “terrorist sabotage” and of a shadow organization, calling itself The Children of Fire and allegedly linked to the Kurdish armed group PKK, which has claimed on its website more an act of propaganda than an evidence contribution, is underlined. This led to neighborhood militias patrolling their neighborhoods in search of possible “terrorists”, beating citizens of Kurdish origin and journalists whose information they believed was not accurate. This is despite the Home Office itself acknowledging there was no evidence the fires were acts of terrorism and the only detainee so far is a 12-year-old boy who claimed having started one of the fires in the province of Antalya, affected by the divorce of his parents.

Others, on the other hand, turn to the Turkish Parliament which, 10 days before the start of the fires, approved the opening of natural areas, including forests, to tourist investment “in a controlled way” and gave the ministry of Tourism the possibility of reclassifying certain areas. However, the Turkish President promised that the burned forest areas will be replanted and not used for other purposes. In any case, this is what the Turkish Constitution has prescribed for 40 years.

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