Turkey — A wildfire that erupted last Thursday in southern Antalya provinces Manavgat district was fully contained yesterday following the six-day-long efforts of firefighters and local villagers and has brought Turkeys shortcomings in the fight against forest fires into the spotlight.
Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroğlu announced yesterday that the Manavgat fire was brought under full control and that preventative measures were being taken to prevent the fire from returning. Forestry Directorate Deputy General Manager Mustafa Kurtulmutlu, on the other hand, termed the damage the fire caused to the forest an atom bomb hurled at the area, with almost 9,000 hectares of land destroyed, around 4,500 hectares of which were agricultural land.
“We mobilized hundreds of firefighters to intervene and control the blaze in the most effective way possible. The fire was contained in its sixth day. It has caused significant damage to trees, bridges and animals in the region. We spent a great amount of money to extinguish the fire and will have to spend even more to reforest the area,” he said.
The fire, along with scorching thousands of hectares of forestland, has revealed Turkey’s deficiencies in the fight against wildfires.
Metin Gençol, director-general of the Aegean Forest Foundation (EOV), told Today’s Zaman yesterday that Turkey needs to improve the techniques it uses in the fight against forest fires.
“The reason the Manavgat fire managed to expand its scope in a short time is that the area is subject to strong winds. Heavy winds spread the flames to other areas in a very short time and delayed all efforts to bring the fire under control. Furthermore, the weather was very hot and the terrain rough. As you know, Turkey didn’t receive the expected amount of precipitation last winter. Rains throughout May helped weeds in forests grow higher. Such weeds are like gunpowder. They burn easily and spread flames across a larger zone,” he said.
Gençol said that although Turkey had considerably improved techniques in the fight against wildfires in the last couple of years, it still has shortcomings.
“The most important issue in combating forest fires is spotting them early. The earlier you intervene in a wildfire, the easier it is to extinguish it. Aerial firefighting is at least as important as firefighting on the ground. Aerial firefighting in Turkey is carried out mainly with leased helicopters, but this is not a very feasible solution for many municipalities because they cannot afford the high cost of leasing helicopters,” he said.
Gençol stressed that a good solution should be found for this shortcoming because aerial firefighting remains the only way to combat fires at times when it becomes impossible for firefighters to intervene in blazes.
He also pointed to the importance of continuing firefighting efforts at night, stressing that combating the blaze is easier at night than during the day.
“The weather is cooler at night and winds lose strength. Such factors offer a great opportunity for firefighters to contain the fire in a short period of time,” he said.
Another shortcoming that needs to be overcome is public unawareness of how forest fires begin.
“A considerable number of forest fires result from negligence or carelessness. Farmers set fire to areas to clear them of weeds, and the blaze burgeons out of control and turns into a national disaster. People throw away their cigarettes in areas full of weeds, and this leads to large-scale fires. We need to increase the level of consciousness among our people about wildfires,” remarked Gençol.
Turkey has around 21.2 million hectares of forested area, but almost half of it is situated in zones with a high risk of fire. A total of 1.6 million hectares of forested area has been affected by fires since 1937, and there has been a significant increase in the number of forest fires in the last couple of years.
According to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, however, Turkey is more successful than many European countries in its fight against fires, which has proven effective in the last couple of years. While Turkey lost only 0.16 percent of its forested area in fires that have erupted in the last five years, France lost 0.81 percent, Spain 2.61 percent, Italy 3.06 percent, Greece 4.87 percent and Portugal 30.68 percent.
Ministry to set up fleet to fight fires
Consecutive wildfires that have incinerated thousands of hectares of forestland with the advent of sweltering summer weather have spurred the Environment and Forestry Ministry into action.
The Cabinet, which gathered on Monday, has pushed for the establishment of a fire aviation fleet that will comprise 30 firefighting helicopters and planes. Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroğlu, speaking to Today’s Zaman yesterday, said 10,000 trees were burned in the Manavgat fire.
“We will start reforestation in the area as soon as possible. I estimate this will cost around YTL 40 million. We have also decided to establish a fire aviation fleet of 30 helicopters and planes. This fleet will be ready by 2009,” he noted.
He also stressed that his ministry currently has a fleet of 25 helicopters and planes used to combat forest fires. “Six of these planes and helicopters belong to our ministry. We leased 16 from Russia and Ukraine. We will strengthen our aerial firefighting capability by setting up a strong fire aviation fleet,” he added.