Tuesday, September 21, 2021

international

As wildfires rage in Turkey and southern Europe, local officials plead for help


ISTANBUL - Amid a sixth day of raging wildfires in southern Turkey, the European Union and neighboring countries sent planes to assist in bringing the blazes under control Monday, as residents and local officials implored the government to provide more firefighting resources.

The fires, in areas around the southern city of Antalya and parts of Turkey's Turquoise Coast, have killed eight people so far, razed farms and miles of pine forest, and forced evacuations from villages, towns and resorts at the peak of the tourist season.

Rescuers raced to save animals as livestock were burned alive. Satellite photos showed vast areas of once verdant coastline blackened by the inferno.

The fires in Turkey come amid a heat wave that has scorched much of southern Europe, with wildfires in Greece and the Italian island of Sicily, along with heat warnings in multiple countries. A dome of high pressure above the region has driven the high temperatures, trapping heat that would otherwise rise and dissipate. Turkish authorities said that over the past week, they had brought more than 100 fires under control, even as new ones broke out Monday.

"The fire is not over. The fire is strengthening," Muhammet Tokat, a district mayor in Mugla province, said in a video he posted online Monday from a coastal area about 20 miles east of the city of Bodrum, as great billows of smoke drifted over the sea behind him.

"Not one of our cries for help since yesterday have been answered. There is still no aerial intervention being made," he said. "Please, can our state do what is necessary for a state to do? They must save this land, these people, this community from suffering."

Firefighters have been forced to work in impossible conditions, combating fires in mountainous areas that only airplanes or helicopters can reach. At least two have died. At the same time, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, which has preached a mantra of Turkish self-sufficiency, has faced intensifying anger after conceding it did not have any of its own firefighting aircraft to deploy, leading to complaints that it was unprepared for the crisis and its response was delayed.

As the hashtag "#helpTurkey" trended on Twitter in recent days, government officials bristled at the notion that Turkey did not have the resources to help itself. "Our Turkey is strong. Our state is standing tall," Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan's spokesman wrote Monday on Twitter, even as an army of firefighters and volunteers struggled to hold the line across a vast area of southern Turkey.

Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan have already sent aircraft. Spain and Croatia have also pledged to send planes.

Bekir Pakdemirli, Turkey's minister for agriculture and forestry, said Monday that 16 aircraft, along with dozens of helicopters, drones and other equipment, had been deployed to fight the fires. But humidity remained unusually low, causing dry conditions that would continue into Tuesday at least, he said.

Fires had entirely burned at least one neighborhood in the town of Gundogmus, in the foothills northeast of the city of Antalya, and forced evacuations from several other neighborhoods. "If Gundogmus burns, the Western Taurus Mountains will burn," said Mehmet Ozeren, the local mayor, in remarks quoted by Birgun, a news outlet.

Another mayor, Ahmet Aras, posted video from a drive near Cokertme, where fires raged under a highway. "We are living in a hell here," he said. "Nothing can be done here. Your hands are completely tied; only plane and helicopters can intervene here. But it's too late for that now."

Farther south, near the resort city of Marmaris, Sedef Yilmaer, 30, a resident and local hotel owner, was among the volunteers providing water and other supplies to victims of the fire, as other volunteers cut down trees to stop the flames from spreading. Firetrucks could not reach the hilltops and she had only seen a few helicopters dumping water on Monday. "There is not enough," she said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. "There is no government and no management of the crisis."

During the fires, she and other volunteers, organizing on WhatsApp, tried to douse outbreaks with tanks of water they kept in their cars, and to rescue sheep from local farms while worrying about their own homes. Her hotel, which was full of tourists last week, was some three miles from the fire line and now empty, after the tourists were evacuated from the area. Things would get worse at night, when helicopters could not operate.

"I am worried," she said. "Everyone is worried."

The heat wave is expected to continue into the week, with experts calling it the most prolonged period of extreme temperatures seen in the region in decades. Some analysts suggested that parts of Greece could hit 117 degrees this week, close to the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe.

Greece is experiencing "the worst heat wave since 1987," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters on Monday, referring to a week-long period of warm weather that left more than 1,000 people dead. Despite the high temperature this week, Mitsotakis advised Greeks to turn down air conditioners and conserve energy to avoid blackouts.

In Italy, some local authorities have said fires raging across Sicily may have been caused by arsonists. If so, they should get a life sentence, Regional Gov. Nello Musumeci told reporters on Saturday.

The European Environment Agency has warned that climate change has increased the risk of forest fires across much of Europe, with Turkey one of the countries most at risk.

Published : August 03, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Kareem Fahim, Adam Taylor