‘It was raining ashes’: Thousands flee as wildfires devastate Turkish coast

·3 min read

Eight people have been killed and more than 10,000 evacuated after wildfires ravaged southern Turkey, in the latest extreme weather event to hit Europe this summer.

Almost 120 fires erupted in 32 towns, with most brought under control. However, authorities said that seven are still blazing in Marmaris, Manavgat and Bodrum, popular tourist destinations on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts.

Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said fire crews were battling to extinguish all the fires.

“We are going through days when the heat is above 40C, where the winds are strong and humidity is extremely low,” he said. “We are struggling under such difficult conditions.”

Locals spoke about how they rushed to try and save their homes and belongings, but there was also a growing sense of anger about the slow reaction of authorities to stop the fires raging out of control.

Meltem Sahin, a 32-year-old resident from the Icmeler district of Marmaris, told The Independent how his family’s home was almost burnt down.

“The fire moved towards the woods behind our house. In a couple of hours, our backyard was burning. We packed some stuff, like my favourite clothes, took our cats and jumped into the car to flee the area.”

But Sahin’s uncle, who also has a house in the area, resisted the evacuation. Joined by Sahin’s father and boyfriend, they formed a team to save their houses.

“I came back to help them but it was burning furiously. It was so hot, almost 50C, and suffocating. It was raining ashes,” Sahin said.

Sahin’s family successfully saved the houses by constantly watering and containing the fire. In the following days, they kept watch in turns, to alert each other for any possible threats.

“Unfortunately, we were relieved only after the whole forest was burnt. Witnessing the destruction of Icmeler, I felt desperate and hopeless.”

The fire in Bodrum alone saw 1,088 residents, 14 dogs, seven cats and a rabbit rescued by boats and coastguard vessels from the area.

Bodrum mayor Ahmet Aras posted pictures of the widespread destruction online and called for more aircraft to be used to dampen down the blazes.

In Bozalan, Esra Sanli sobbed as she pointed at a fire raging near the village. “There’s no plane, there’s no helicopter, there’s no roads. How is this going to be extinguished? How?” she said.

Aircraft from Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia and Ukraine were sent to assist in the massive operation, but Turkey had been slow in requesting help from the European Union. The EU mobilised three water-carrying planes, one from Croatia and two from Spain, to join the fire-fighting efforts after receiving the request from Turkey on Sunday.

Frustrated citizens, deeply disappointed with the government’s weak response, launched a social media campaign on Sunday, calling for global aid in the form of planes and assistance to stop the fires by tagging the United Nations and the EU. The #HelpTurkey campaign was widely shared by singers, artists, TV personalities, and influencers.

It is still not clear whether some of the fires were started deliberately. Authorities were investigating the cause of the fires, including human “carelessness” and possible sabotage by outlawed Kurdish militants.

People on a beach in Manavgat, Antalya, Turkey (AP)
People on a beach in Manavgat, Antalya, Turkey (AP)

Experts mostly point to climate change as being behind the fires, along with accidents caused by people, though some are sceptical. “The rumours of arsons are causing paranoia”, Meltem Sahin said. “The tensions are high. People are patrolling the area, hoping to find arsonists. Nobody accepts that climate change can cause this.”

A heatwave across southern Europe, fed by hot air from North Africa, has led to wildfires across the Mediterranean, including in Italy and Greece, where people had to be evacuated by sea to escape the flames.

It comes just weeks after floods devastated northern Europe, leaving more than 150 people dead.

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