Turkish rescuers on Thursday began evacuating hundreds of villagers by sea after a deadly wildfire engulfed the outer edges of a thermal power plant storing thousands of tons of coal.

An AFP team saw firefighters and police fleeing the 35-year-old Kemerkoy plant in the Aegean province of Mugla as bright balls of orange flame tore through the surrounding hills.

Hundreds of local villages — many clutching small bags of belongings grabbed from their abandoned houses as the evacuation call sounded — began piling onto coastguard speedboats at the nearby port of Oren.

The regional authority said “all explosive chemicals” and other hazardous material had been removed from the strategic site.

“But there’s a risk that the fire could spread to the thousands of tons of coal inside,” regional mayor Osman Gurun told reporters.

Local officials said hydrogen tanks used to cool the station had been emptied and filled with water as a precaution.

Turkish news reports said most of the coal had been moved from the plant to a storage site five kilometers (three miles) away as a precaution when the blaze first approached the region at the start of the week.

More than 180 wildfires have scorched huge swathes of forest and killed eight people since breaking out along almost the entire perimeter of Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.

The European Union’s satellite monitoring service said their “radiative power” — a measure of the fires’ intensity — “has reached unprecedented values in the entire dataset, which goes back to 2003”.

– ‘No room for politics’ –

The fires’ strength and scale have exposed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to days of criticism for what some observers say has been his sluggish response to the crisis.

Erdogan had just begun a live television interview about the fires as news broke about the evacuation of the plant.

He acknowledged that the efforts of firefighters to save the station were failing in the face of “tremendous wind” fanning the flames.

But he also lashed out at opposition leaders for trying to score political points by questioning his governments’ readiness and response.

“When fires break out in America or Russia, (the opposition) stands by the government,” said Erdogan.

“Like elsewhere in the world, there has been a big increase in the forest fires in our country. There should be no room for politics here.”

The Turkish government appears to have been caught off guard by the scale and ferocity of the flames.

Its media watchdog on Tuesday warned broadcasters that they might be fined if they continue showing live footage of the blazes or air images of screaming people running for their lives.

Most rolling news channels dropped their coverage of the unfolding disaster until the fire reached the power plant.

– Temperature record broken –

Erdogan himself has been subjected to days of ridicule on social media after he tossed bags of tea to crowds of people while touring one of the affected regions under heavy police escort. 

The opposition has also accused the powerful Turkish leader of being too slow to accept offers of foreign assistance — including from regional rival Greece — and for having failed to properly maintain firefighting planes.

Erdogan’s office blamed the very first blazes near Antalya on arsonists, which pro-government media linked to banned Kurdish militants waging a decades-long insurgency against the state.

But more and more public officials now link them to an extreme heatwave that has dried up reservoirs and created tinderbox conditions across much of Turkey’s south.

Experts have warned that climate change in countries such as Turkey increases both the frequency and intensity of wildfires. The government of neighboring Greece has directly linked devastating fires there, which covered the capital Athens in smoke on Wednesday, to global warming.

Turkey’s Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said temperatures in the Aegean city of Marmaris had reached an all-time record of 45.5 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Farenheit) this week.

“We are fighting a very serious war,” the minister told reporters. “I urge everyone to be patient.”

Source Agence France Presse



‘Like a Bomb’: Turkish Farmers Watch Animals Perish in Flames

Farmer Mevlut Tarim says the furious fire that burned his cow alive, killed eight people and scorched vast swathes of Turkey was like an explosion.

“The fire happened in an instant,” the 67-year-old told AFP after managing to pull and push some of his screaming animals through pitch-black smoke and patches of burning turf encircling his farm. 

He said he, too, was lucky to be alive.

“One of my cows died. It burned,” he recalled. “I had never seen anything like it. You can’t even call it a fire. It was really like a bomb.”

Tarim’s story is similar to those of other farmers as the deadliest and most destructive fires in generations rage across Turkey’s southern coast for a seventh day.

Thousands of farm animals have perished and huge chunks of lush forest coating the rolling hills have turned into skeletal sticks and ash.

The anguished farmers have been trying to direct their herds toward the relative safety of the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.

But guiding the panicked animals is difficult and the winds whipping up the firestorms around them are unpredictable.

And the exhausted firefighters dumping seawater on the flames from helicopters and dousing the wreckage with hoses are not always able to arrive in time to help farmers such as Tarim.

– ‘Not running away’ –

Lemis Sapir is a local insurance agent who felt it was his duty to stay put and help out any way he could.

“I didn’t feel like running away,” the 44-year-old said. “We are going to give all the help we can.”

Turkish social media have been filled with images of brave locals trying to put the fires out with everything from garden watering pitchers to tree branches.

Sapir said the burning town of Hisaronu on the Aegean Sea has received reinforcements from other regions.

“But because of the height of the mountains, which are steep, and the very thick forest, the firefighters can’t intervene,” he said.

“The air reinforcements are not strong enough. There are fires in too many places in Turkey at the moment and we can’t respond to them all.”

Turkey’s response to the disaster has turned a huge political scandal that has piled pressure on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The opposition accuses the powerful Turkish leader of being too slow to accept offers of foreign assistance — including from regional rival Greece — and failing to properly maintain firefighting planes.

Erdogan’s office counters that the entire emergency rescue force has been fully mobilized for days and calls claims of mismanagement “fake news” designed to make Turkey look weak.

Local store manager Yasemin Akkaya said this was not the time to play politics or argue about Turkey’s geostrategic might.

“This is not the time to be proud,” Akkaya said.

“We are a powerful country. Our people are strong. But I have my water cut off at home,” he said. “Do we need water? Yes, because the area of the fire is very large.”

Farmer Tarim shakes his head as he surveys the damage.

“Look around. It’s a disaster,” he said. “We are lucky to be alive.”

Source Agence France Presse