Erdogan, government criticized as weeklong wildfires rage


BOZALAN, TURKEY | As Turkish fi re crews pressed ahead Tuesday with their weeklong battle against blazes tearing through forests and villages on the country’s southern coast, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government faced increased criticism over its apparent poor response and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires.

Fed by strong winds and scorching temperatures, the fi res that began Wednesday have left eight people dead, forced thousands of residents and tourists to flee homes or vacation resorts in boats or convoys of cars and trucks. Charred and blackened trees have replaced some of the pine-coated hills in Turkey’s Turquoise Coast while many villagers lost homes and livestock.

Firefighters on Tuesday were still tackling nine fi res in the coastal provinces of Antalya and Mugla that are popular tourist destinations. Other active fi res were reported in the provinces of Usak and Isparta. In all, 137 fi res that broke out in over 30 provinces since Wednesday have been put out, officials said.

A senior Turkish forestry official described the wildfires as the worst in Turkey in living memory, though he could not say how many acres of forest land the fi res had devoured. He also could not estimate how long it would take the crews to put the fi res out, saying strong winds were reigniting flames that had previously been brought under control. As residents lost homes and livestock, anger turned toward the government, which admitted that it did not have a usable firefighting aircraft fleet. Opposition parties accused the government of failing to procure firefighting planes and instead spending money for construction projects that they say harmful the environment.

In the village of Bozalan, in Mugla province, where homes and olive groves were incinerated, residents complained that the government’s response was inadequate.

“Our fi re-extinguishing helicopters were insufficient,” said 58-year-old Mahmut Sanli. “Our homes burned down. If there was a firefighting crew in our neighborhood, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Nevzat Yildirim, 30, said he had called authorities in Mugla pleading for help but “nothing came.”

“We tried to protect our own homes through our own means, by filling up buckets. We organized ourselves with neighbors, youths and saved our homes,” he said.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, accused Mr. Erdogan on Tuesday of lacking a “master plan” to prevent and tackle forest fires and of ignoring warnings concerning global warming.

“If a president is incapable of devising a master plan for forest fi re prevention, that president cannot prevent forest fi res,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu said in a televised address. “If a president is not aware that forest fi res will increase with global warming … that president cannot prevent forest fires.”

Mr. Erdogan’s government has also been accused of compromising firefighting efforts by allegedly refusing help from Western nations during the early stages of the fi res.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu rejected the claim Tuesday, saying Turkey accepted all offers for assistance that met its needs. France and Greece also offered to send fi re-dumping planes but were later forced to retract them due to fi res there, he said. Germany also withdrew an offer to send helicopters, he said.

“In times of disaster, we would of course accept assistance from other countries in the same way that we provide assistance to other countries,” he said.

The Israeli Embassy, however, said Tuesday that Israel had offered to help but Turkish officials had refused the offer, saying the “situation is under control.”

Mayors posted videos pleading for aerial firefighting responses to local wildfires while celebrities joined a social media campaign requesting foreign help to combat the blazes. The campaign drew an angry response from a top Erdogan aide, Fahrettin Altun, who said “Our Turkey is strong. Our state is standing strong.”

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