Deadly fires in Turkey raise temperatures in Erdogan
TIT IS FIRE climbed the hills, scattered and grew, aided by the wind, and hurtled down to the shore. In some places, desperate residents rushed out to sea, filling plastic buckets with water to ward off flames approaching their homes. Others ran or drove for their lives. The sky turned gray, then orange. By the time the smoke cleared, swathes of Turkey’s coastal paradise, once covered with pine forests and olive groves, were ashes.
At least eight people have died in fires along Turkey’s southern and western coasts in late July, following record temperatures and severe drought. Thousands more were evacuated, including tourists from seaside resorts, a few boats embarking to escape. Nearly 160,000 hectares of forest burned in Turkey this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System, four times the average between 2008 and 2020. Forest fires also raged this summer elsewhere in the country. region (see map).
The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in early August that most of the fires were under control. But on August 5, parts of the region remained on fire. In Milas, near the Aegean coast, the flames spread to a thermal power station. Officials said they removed explosive materials from the plant and emptied its hydrogen tanks.
The government, caught off guard by the disaster, is also feeling the heat. As local mayors pleaded for help, ministers admitted they had no working water bombers and belatedly resorted to helicopters. The head of the agency responsible for planes admitted to having gone to a wedding at the height of the crisis. Turkey finally accepted offers of aid from Russia, Azerbaijan and the EU. Volunteers and firefighters poured in from across the country, as did police trucks equipped with water cannons, typically used against protesters. The inhabitants were seething, feeling that the government had abandoned them to their fate. To quell the outcry, the Turkish media watchdog accused some TV stations of spreading “fear and anxiety” about the fires and threatened them with “the heaviest penalties”.
Mr. Erdogan, an authoritarian leader admired by his supporters as a capable manager, did not shine. He seems more and more overwhelmed by the crises shaking his country. On July 31, he arrived in Marmaris, a region besieged by fires. His motorcade blocked traffic as he threw packets of tea from his bus to local residents. Days later, he vowed that the government would rebuild destroyed properties and cover rents for the homeless.
Turkey is reaping the effects of decades of environmental destruction, made worse by climate change. Earlier this summer, thick sheets of marine mucilage, more loosely known as “sea snot,” spread over the Sea of Marmara south of Istanbul as a result of rising temperatures, a frenzy of construction and industrial runoff. A severe drought and the diversion of water for agriculture was probably the cause of the deaths of thousands of baby flamingos in a salt lake in Anatolia. Each year, the forests that line the country’s coastline retreat further inland, replaced by rows of vacation homes and hotels. Erdogan’s ministers have vowed to keep developers away from areas scorched by this summer’s fires. Even if they keep their word, the fires have shown just how much more difficult it has become to control climate change.
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This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Up in smoke”