Manavgat, Turkey – The southern coast of Turkey is on fire. On the forested hills of the Manavgat district of Antalya, plumes of thick smoke appear in the sky one after another because every time a forest fire is brought under control, another seems to ignite.
A blood red sun shines through the yellowish haze and as the visibility clears, the charred, skeletal remains of what were forests and villages are revealed. This, according to many, is just the latest sign that the world is entering an era of climate crisis, and Turkey is unprepared for it.
Over the past six days, 132 destructive fires raged across southern and other parts of Turkey, killing eight people and burning at least 118,789 hectares of land, according to the European Forest Fire Information System .
While controversy is high, many in Turkey believe the fires are the result of “sabotage” – a theory encouraged by many politicians – they coincide with both severe drought months and extreme temperatures.
Antalya, a tourist hotspot that averages around the mid-30s Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) at this time of year, has seen highs of over 40C this week. On July 20, Turkey recorded its highest temperature on record at 49.1 (120.38 degrees Fahrenheit) in the southeast.
Numerous fires have ravaged forests near beach destinations popular with local and European tourists, such as Bodrum and Marmaris, with people fleeing in cars, small boats and in some cases luxury yachts. Soaring temperatures have also sparked forest fires across much of southern Europe, including Greece, Spain and Italy.
Manavgat is one of the most fire-affected places in Turkey, and although seasonal fires are normal and even healthy for the local ecosystem, environmental groups say they have never been seen on this scale. With the landscape parched and strong winds – especially the northeastern one known as ‘poyraz’ in Turkey – authorities are struggling to move fast enough to get things under control.
The small village of Sirtkoy, whose main income comes from growing aromatic bay leaves used in cooking, caught fire in the early hours of Sunday morning. In less than an hour, the local school was destroyed and many houses were reduced to rubble.
“This whole area was fine yesterday,” said one resident, Mustafa, who declined to give his last name, pointing to a blackened and still smoking pile of stones that had been his friend’s home. “The fires started this morning at 5 am and it burned down. At 6 a.m. the fire was out, but at 9 a.m. the wind came back and so did the fire.
When Al Jazeera visited Sirtkoy on Sunday afternoon, planes, firefighters and forestry workers fought relentlessly to control the flames which, like a fictional candle, kept reigniting. With acrid smoke making the whites of their eyes red, many men had little more to protect their lungs than disposable surgical masks.
Villagers sprayed the exterior walls and property with water bottles, desperately trying to keep the flames out, while some questioned why authorities had yet to take responsibility for the lack of disaster preparedness that many could see it coming.
“No one took responsibility for these fires and we have nothing left after today,” said a resident of Hatice Cinar, the sound of scorched trees collapsing echoing from the forest below.
Cinar said the village is not suitable for growing vegetables or raising animals, so the only way of life they know is growing bay leaves – she had 500 trees, which , she hoped, would give her 18-year-old son a future, but they’ve all been destroyed.
“With the forest, we have lost everything,” she said.
Erdogan sightseeing area
Over the weekend, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other government ministers visited communities destroyed by the fires to inspect the damage and offer their condolences.
“We will continue to take all necessary measures to heal the wounds of our country, make up for its losses and improve its opportunities,” Erdogan said, pledging that the government would provide financial support to those affected. The measures announced included coverage of rents and deferral of taxes, social security and credit payments, as well as the provision of interest-free credit to small businesses.
“We cannot do anything other than wish for God’s mercy on the lives we have lost, but we can replace whatever has been burned,” Erdogan said.
Some have criticized the Turkish government for its handling of the disaster, especially given the lack of firefighting planes in the country. Instead, water bombers were mobilized from Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran to help, and the European Union announced on Sunday that it would send three more.
Due to lack of resources in areas affected by the fires, firefighters from municipalities across the country were dispatched to help. Teams of volunteers have gathered to provide support to the displaced, including members of the Communist Party of Antalya, who have been visiting the affected sites since Thursday to donate clothes, food and cold water.
“People are having a very difficult time, but the government should be doing it with our taxes, not us,” said volunteer Cem Taylan. ” It was predictable. It is not fate, you can handle the damage caused by these fires. “
In the village of Kalemler, Mitad Akca, 63, and his wife, Hatice Akca, 61, were packing a car outside the ruins of their home with donations of vegetables and other food from Disaster and Emergency Management. , or Afad.
They said the whole village had been destroyed three days earlier in 45 minutes and the only thing that survived the heat was their jewelry.
“He came 22 miles (35 km) and I was so nervous I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t take anything that I just left, ”Akca said.
“My tractor and everything else burned down – 50 years of work was gone in minutes. But Erdogan came today and told us that the government will give us new tractors next week and houses within a year.
“As the climate changes, fires will spread”
Hediye Gundiz, head of environmental group A Platform, said the government was warned 15 years ago after the last unusually large fires in Manavgat that global warming would likely cause more, but nothing has been done.
She said that in addition to needing water bombers to fight fires quickly, the government should organize workshops to train residents in risk areas in fire prevention.
“It takes a tree between 30 and 40 years to grow. It might take 50 years to get what we had, but we don’t have the water we need for it like we used to, ”she said.
However, this is not the only recent sign that Turkey is struggling to cope with climate change – in May, a lake in Van province in eastern Turkey dried up completely. Migratory birds such as flamingos have been found dead in droves this year as their waterholes disappear, droughts have caused sinkholes in central Anatolia and, last week, six people were killed during flash floods in the Black Sea region of Turkey.
Since December of last year, a thick and unsightly ‘sea snot’ caused by rising sea temperatures and pollution has invaded the Sea of Marmara, stifling tourism and depriving local fishermen of their means of survival. subsistence.
Fire ecologist Ismail Bekker has said that in recovering from the fires, the key is not to replant as it might seem, but to leave the forests on their own.
“These Mediterranean ecosystems and fires have been like this for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years, although they are smaller,” he said, adding that the strict forest protection laws in Turkey actually make it harder. such disasters more likely.
While in some countries, such as the United States, controlled burns are used to clean the forest of dried leaves and other debris that serve as fuel for fires, Turkey does not allow them, resulting in larger natural fires. which are difficult to control.
“We need to include forests in urban planning because this disaster has shown that forest fires are now reaching such a size that they can threaten urban areas,” he said.
“As the climate changes, it will get even hotter and fires will increase. “