Turkey's forest fire season begins

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva, Canva.

Summer wildfires have become a usual norm in Turkey. Every year, forests, residential rural settlements and agricultural land burn to the ground as a result. But just as the fires have become a norm, so has the criticism of the state, for its failure to invest and improve its first response infrastructure, quick intervention, and faster dispatch of rescuers. Experts say while climate change or excessive weather conditions may have had a role to play, these crises were also an outcome of poor planning and incorrect decisions made at the government level.

On June 21, two southeastern provinces of Turkey, Mardin and Diyarbakir reportedly experienced fires that have thus far killed 11, hundreds of cattle and sheep perishing as a result of the blaze, and injured 78 according to local media reports. The fires spread between the districts of Çınar in Diyarbakır and Mazıdağı in Mardin. Some 50 acres of cultivated farmland was damaged as reported by press agency Bianet.

But as journalist Ruşen Takva wrote on X, not one government official has resigned in shame. In a statement shared on X, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy (DEM) Party also criticized the officials over the absence not just in this fire but often when the country is hit with environmental crisis.

Reports of the fire indicate it was stubble burning incident that started the fire, quickly spreading due to high temperatures and strong winds, “engulfing surrounding villages and causing significant casualties and damage,” cited YetkinReport. But there are others who reported the sparks from electrical wires as a cause. The latter was quickly denied by the grid operator in the region – Dicle Electrical Company.

A former member of the parliament from Diyarbakir Sibel Yiğitalp took her frustrations to X where the politician lashed at the authorities for spending millions of dollars on sending its first man to space, and yet failing to purchase additional fire extinguishing helicopters that the country desperately needs.

Just in June alone, several other fires were reported amid heat wave, affecting at least 19 provinces across Turkey, including in the northwest, as well as in provinces of Uşak, İzmir, Balıkesir, and Manisa according to local media reports. According to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), Turkey has already experienced 77 fires since the start of this year affecting 13,709 hectares so far.

According to the data of the General Directorate of Forestry (OGM), the most common cause of wildfires in Turkey is due to “neglect and accidents.” According to the data, a total of 88,636 hectares of forest area was lost due to negligence or accident between 2013-2022.

In 2021, Turkey experienced the worst wildfires seen in a decade when wildfires tore through southern European countries the same year.

Since then, the authorities have introduced improvements. According to reporting by Bianet, the OGM has expanded its capacity, raising the number of firefighting aircraft to over a 100 (in contrast during the 2021 wildfires when there were only three) and reporting over 2,000 aerial interventions in 2023 alone, the use of drones for observation and placing a ban on entry into forest areas across 29 provinces hoping to prevent fire outbreaks. These measures are not enough according to experts. In an interview with Cumhuriyet newspaper, director of Turkey's Forest Union, Ahmet Hüsrev Özkara said, “it was just about banning picnics in forest areas. Society must be educated. And all state and non-state institutions must acknowledge this (including preventive and maintenance work of energy transmission lines) and act accordingly.”

In an interview with DW news, Prof. Dr. Doğanay Tolunay of Faculty of Forestry, Department of Soil Science and Ecology, some of that preventive work includes hiring enough firefighters whose numbers remain insufficient for the scale of the country. Increasing the number of firefighting aircraft is not enough either according to Tolunay because based on previous year's fires, much of the water discharged from these aircrafts quickly evaporates in air by the time it reaches the fire area. Similar to Özkara, Tolunay also pointed out to the number of energy transmission lines passing through areas prone to fires and their lack of maintenance. According to Tolunay “increases in permits for road construction through forests also increase chances of forest fires as a result of direct forest-human interaction.”

Taking this into account and as the country heads into the hottest and riskiest months of the summer – July and August, the chances of preventing new wildfires from raging through the country and putting them out, remain slim.

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