Blackened fields. Trees that look like burnt matchsticks. A pungent smell of smoke in the hills around Cakilliyali, an idyllic village near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. It is a miracle that a few houses on the beach have been spared by the scorching forest fire that swept through here last weekend. In some places the conflagration has stopped just in front of the white buildings.
The village is virtually extinct. All residents and bathers have been rushed to Bodrum by coastguard boats. Only the Kiran family remained. “The Coast Guard put a lot of pressure on us to go, but we refused to leave,” said Pervin Kiran, the owner of a beach club with several guest houses. “Fortunately, because that’s how we were able to save our company.”
The fire started Saturday night, in the surrounding hills. When the wind picked up, the village was surrounded by flames in no time. Gas cylinders in the kitchens of neighboring guest houses exploded, spreading the fire. “The plants in our garden even caught fire,” Kiran recalls. “My children were terrified. Because we had no water to put out the fire, we broke open the neighbor’s water tank. We also took buckets of water from the sea.”
The family expected help from the state, as in 2006, when a forest fire was quickly extinguished using helicopters and planes. But they were nowhere to be seen. In the morning two helicopters flew over, throwing a load of water on the fire. “That gave us courage. We thought they would return with a new load. But we haven’t seen them again. The state declined. That came as a huge shock.”
Got out of hand
There is great anger in Turkey over the central government’s lack of response to the forest fires, which have been raging in the south and west for ten days now. Although forest fires occur every year, many Turks wonder why they have gotten so out of hand this time, and why the government is failing to control them. Social media has been awash with videos of brave but powerless aid workers, desperate victims, and calls for international aid.
At least eight people have died in the fires, which have already reduced more than 136,000 hectares (845 square kilometers) of forest to ashes, according to the European Forest Fires Information Service. That is three times more than normal in a whole year. And it’s only early August. According to experts, such fierce forest fires will become an annual phenomenon due to increasing drought and rising temperatures. Not just in Turkey, but throughout the Mediterranean.
Erdogan points to local governments, even though the constitution states that the state is responsible for protecting forests
But of all the countries in the region, Turkey seems to be the worst prepared. While Greece has 39 fire-fighting planes, President Erdogan had to confess that Turkey does not have a single useful fire-extinguisher at its disposal. The three planes that are there are on the ground because there is not enough money for maintenance. This led to an outburst of anger among the population. The government was forced to ask for help from Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and the EU.
A social media campaign under the hashtag #HelpTurkey reached millions of tweets within hours. But according to Erdogan’s communications director, the campaign was organized from abroad to make Turkey appear weak. He responded with his own hashtags, such as #StrongTurkey and #WeDontNeedHelp. Media watchdog RTÜK warned that TV channels would face heavy fines if their coverage only focused on the fires that are still raging.
The image of a failing government is reminiscent of the aftermath of the massive earthquake in 1999 near the industrial city of Izmit, just outside Istanbul, that cost more than 18,000 lives. For the first few days after the disaster, the government seemed paralyzed. Aid was long in coming and foreign aid was refused. The ensuing storm of criticism contributed significantly to Erdogan’s AK party’s 2002 election victory, which wiped out the ruling political elite.
Support for the AKP is already at an all-time low due to high inflation and unemployment, exacerbated by the pandemic. “As opposition anger grows, fear is growing in government circles,” tweeted Selim Koru, political analyst for Turkey’s Tepav think tank. “This trend will only increase as popular support shifts more towards the opposition.”
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Erdogan said on Wednesday that the responsibility for putting out fires in “residential areas” lies with the municipalities, which are mostly controlled by the opposition, even though the Turkish constitution states that the state is responsible for protecting forests. But the mayors of Bodrum and other cities in the region complain that they are not even invited to help coordination. That is why opposition cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir have sent aid to the affected areas.
Cement trucks with water
A fire truck from Istanbul is parked on a road through burned forest area outside Bodrum. The firefighters are resting in the shade of the car, while the hills next to the road are still smoldering. “We’re spraying the hills to prevent another fire,” says Salih Tandogan, as he cuts a large melon into pieces for his colleagues with a pocket knife. “But it’s so hot that the water just evaporates.”
Local citizens and entrepreneurs also help where they can. For example, the construction company Cagdas from Bodrum has made available fifty cement trucks that bring water to the disaster area. “Normally, fire trucks have to drive up and down to get water,” says foreman Emrullah Imrak, who sits with colleagues in the shade of a tree while the trucks are being filled again. “With our help, they can continue to extinguish non-stop. As a result, two villages have already been saved.” A school in the town of Mumcular serves as the local crisis center of the Bodrum municipality. The classrooms are full of items donated by citizens and companies, such as food and fireproof shoes. Hundreds of volunteers walk outside, mostly young people from the area who want to help.
All this is managed by Asli Mercan, a resolute young woman in an orange vest who constantly gives orders via a megaphone. “Don’t forget to eat, I need you for a long time.” Moments later: “There is a child trapped in the fire, I need volunteers to free it.” She is so busy that she barely has time to speak to the press.
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For a moment the fire seemed under control, but then the wind picked up and everyone had to be evacuated
“It may look disorganized from a distance, but we know what we’re doing,” Mercan says as she quickly eats a sandwich. “We have plenty of volunteers, even though most of them only sleep a few hours a night. Our biggest problem is the lack of firefighting planes and helicopters. Today two aircraft arrived from Spain, but that is not enough.”
The planes were deployed on Wednesday to rescue a power plant that supplies power to half a million people in the region. By early afternoon, the fire appeared to be under control. But when the wind picked up, it flared up again and the complex caught fire. Residents of the villages around the coal-fired power station had to be hastily evacuated using naval vessels.
“The Turkish government is completely unprepared for this kind of disaster,” said Gökçe Sencan, climate researcher at Koc University. “Instead of fire-fighting planes, they are sending armored vehicles with water cannons, which are normally used against protesters.”
Turkey is one of six countries that have not ratified the Paris Climate Agreement. “While the country has been struggling with severe droughts due to climate change in recent years. But instead of preparing and drafting climate policy, the government is giving the [Koerdische terreurbeweging] PKK blamed for arson.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of August 6, 2021