Suspicious forest fires rage in Turkey’s south for a second day

Forest fires spread to a vast area in southern Turkish provinces on Thursday, from the summer getaway of Antalya to Adana and Mersin. Fires started on Wednesday, threatening residential areas. Their almost consecutive nature triggered concerns that they might be the result of a string of arson attacks.

The worst fire was in Manavgat, a town in Antalya province which is popular among holidaymakers. It erupted on Wednesday noon in four different spots of the town surrounded by forests. It did not reach to town center but affected the villages near it. Eighteen villages and neighborhoods were evacuated, while authorities announced that 62 people were hospitalized for burns and smoke inhalation. Three people were killed in the fire and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) announced on Thursday that 122 people were “affected” by the fire while 58 were still hospitalized.

Firefighters of Antalya, accompanied by crews arriving from nearby cities, joined extinguishing efforts while helicopters and planes dumped fire retardant on burning buildings and fields in and around Manavgat. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that “all necessary support will be given to our citizens who have suffered from the fire,” adding an investigation had been launched into the cause. Antalya Metropolitan Mayor Muhittin Böcek had implied earlier that the fires were “suspicious” as they started at four different locations at the same time.

Fahrettin Altun, Turkish Presidency’s Communications Director, said on Thursday that authorities launched “comprehensive investigations” into the causes of the fires. “Those who are responsible will be held accountable for these attacks against nature and our forests,” he said in a tweet.

Locals and firefighters spray water on a burning house, in Manavgat, Antalya, southern Turkey, July 29, 2021. (AA Photo)

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Bekir Pakdemirli, who visited areas ravaged by fire, told reporters on Thursday morning that the fire was largely under control. However, another fire broke out in neighboring Akseki town on Wednesday night and now threatens Manavgat after it spread to the town due to winds. Pakdemirli announced an 82-year-old individual was killed in the Akseki fire. Later on Thursday, Pakdemirli updated the number to three, with two more deaths in Değirmenli, a rural neighborhood. The new fire led to the evacuation of two neighborhoods in Akseki and the evacuation of an unknown number of residences in five neighborhoods of Manavgat.

In some places, people fought the fires on their own, spraying water through hoses and buckets. The fires also led to mass deaths of livestock in rural areas while locals struggled to lead their herds to safety. Hasan Ünal, a local living in Ulukapı neighborhood some 25 kilometers away from the location of the first fire in the Yeniköy neighborhood, spoke to Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Thursday about the incident. Ünal explained that he fled his house with his family when he found out about the fire. “I drove through nearby neighborhoods and warned people about the fire. Few people left or intervened in the fire. If they did, it wouldn’t spread much,” he lamented.

Galip Kara, another local, said in tears that he narrowly rescued the animals in his stable. “I opened the door and took them outside, and then, we fled and climbed up a hill where the fire did not reach. The fire was heading toward central Manavgat when I last saw,” he said. The damage was extensive across the villages, with television footage from the area showing flames, although weak, still visible in burnt buildings. Volkan Hülür, district governor of Akseki, told Anadolu Agency (AA) that firefighters managed to respond within 15 minutes to the fire in Akseki. Despite this, the fast-spreading fire “burned 80% of houses” in Kepezbeleni neighborhood.

Pakdemirli announced that, although they managed to bring the Manavgat fires under control, the fire in Akseki was still burning. He explained that 41 forest fires broke out on Wednesday, and only 10 among them were still burning while others had been contained. He said 10 people were stranded at Oymapınar Dam in Manavgat due to the fire. A few hours after his statement, authorities announced all 10 had been rescued and were safe. According to the minister, the fires were not life-threatening as of Thursday morning; still, responders would take additional measures as the fires had not completely burned out and could spread again if winds changed course and fanned the flames. He reassured the public that all public agencies were mobilized to contain the fires and help the people affected by them.

Another fire broke out in Marmaris, another popular vacation resort town west of Antalya, and prompted concerns despite being much smaller than the Manavgat fire. Firefighters battled a blaze that broke out in an area where another forest fire devastated a small patch of forest last month. Television footage showed flames approaching an area dotted with hotels. Hours later a fire broke out in Bodrum, a spot that is probably more popular than Marmaris as a vacation resort, in an area connecting the town to the Milas district of Muğla province.

In another small fire in Datça, a pine forest was damaged on Thursday.

An infographic shows areas affected by forest fires in Turkey. (By: Adil-Girey Ablyatifov / Daily Sabah)

Elsewhere, a forest fire broke out in the Kozan district of Adana on Wednesday evening and again, strong winds fanned the flames. Firefighters struggled against flames until the early hours of Thursday, while seven villages near the fire’s epicenter in a rural part of the district were evacuated. Cumali Yücel, a local, told DHA that “a small fire” on the banks of a dam reservoir got out of control quickly and reached their neighborhood. Yücel, who lost his house to the fire, said security forces took them to the safety. In Mersin, Aydıncık and Bozyazı towns were gripped with forest fires on Wednesday. Wildfires started in pine forests continued into Thursday. Another fire broke out in Silifke district in the early hours of Thursday, leading to a brief closure of a road connecting Mersin to Antalya.

Also in Adana, a fire broke out in a forest in the Aladağ district and led to evacuations, while ten people trapped in a burning area were rescued. Three neighborhoods in areas near the fire were evacuated. Adana Governor Süleyman Elban told reporters that 22 forest fires broke out in Adana on Wednesday and twenty among them were put out on the same day.

In Adana’s neighboring Osmaniye province, firefighters were still striving on Thursday to contain flames from a forest fire that broke out near a village on Wednesday. Helicopters and planes poured water on the fire while bulldozers struggled to clear the path for firefighters trying to reach the scene by land.

Flames engulf a forest in Osmaniye, southern Turkey, July 29, 2021. (AA PHOTO)

Wildfires are common in Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean regions during the arid summer months, although some forest fires have been blamed on arson. Temperatures were around 37 Celsius degrees (98 Fahrenheit degrees) in Manavgat while similar levels and higher temperatures were reported in other areas hit by the fires.