The sky above one of Turkey’s bestloved resorts glowed orange in the midday heat, the sun blanketed behind clouds of smoke. The stench of burning trees hung heavy and flecks of ash dropped around the sun loungers.
“It is bad, so bad,” the hotel owner said in his sweltering lobby, listening to the helicopters. “The fires are coming closer every time.”
By evening, crowds were gathering on the streets of Turunc, a village in the Aegean region of Marmaris, an area popular with British tourists. The fire was just over the mountain ridge that looms behind the hotels.
One woman cried into her phone, while at the taxi rank drivers told a growing queue that all the roads out were closed. The helicopters appeared like flies against the column of smoke.
The next morning, with the inferno appearing to have been brought under control, drivers braved the road out.
They came to a halt at a turn in the mountain road as swathes of smoke billowed towards them. The only way out was by boat. From the water, the scale of the devastation became clear. Mile after mile of what had once been pine forest had been reduced to smouldering skeletons of trees.
By 9am, the sun was searing the parched landscape and new fires were breaking out. At resorts along the coast, sunbathers looked up at the flames.
“This will take 30 or 40 years to come back,” Mustafa Cengiz said, watching from the deck of his boat.
Much of Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coast is ablaze. On Wednesday, fires broke out in the resort of Manavgat, close to Antalya, where an 82-year-old man and a married couple died and more than 50 people were taken to hospital.
A 25-year-old volunteer was killed in a fire near Marmaris on Thursday, raising the death toll in the fires to four. The state-run Anadolu Agency said that the man was taking drinking water to firefighters but his motorcycle crashed and he died in the flames.
Across Turkey, more than 50 fires have broken out this week as temperatures pass 40C in regions that haven’t seen rain for months.
As investigations began into the causes of the fires, officials have blamed dropped cigarettes, glass that magnifies the sun’s rays and, at times, sabotage. Pro-government newspapers have reported that the PKK, a banned Kurdish militant party, was responsible.
Bekir Pakdemirli, the agriculture and forestry minister, said yesterday that firefighters were tackling outbreaks at 20 places in six provinces.
What has been lost in Marmaris is not just the backdrop to a holiday idyll. It is also the world’s biggest producer of pine honey and the lungs of a country that has been disappearing under swathes of concrete.
Almost a third of Turkey is classed as forested land but much of it has succumbed to fire or development. Under Turkish law burnt forests should be replanted with trees. But over the past decade, new hotels have taken root. On the Bodrum peninsula, three hotels were built in a ravaged area in 2008.
President Erdogan and his AK Party maintain close ties with the building sector. Despite a worsening economic crisis, construction projects are still mushrooming. More than 2,000 hotels are up for sale yet roads are dotted with billboards for new projects. Nuri Ersoy, the tourism minister, owns three hotels and the country’s largest tourism agency. Turkey has signed the 2015 Paris Agreement but it has not yet ratified it. Experts say the spread of concrete is helping to raise temperatures.
Oya Ozarslan of Transparency International’s Turkey branch said: “The construction sector in Turkey has been the most developed sector in the past 20 years, and transactions such as licences and permits are the areas where corruption occurs the most. Tenders given to a few companies with strong political relations and the high payments made create question marks.
“It is common, especially in tourism regions, that green areas are plundered first, and that some lands uncovered by fires have lost their forest quality after a while and are given to some companies by opening them for construction.”