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Fires Rage in Turkey as Anger Grows over Grounded Firefighting Aircraft


A helicopter flies as a fire engulfs the area in Oren, near Bodrum, Turkey, Aug. 3, 2021.

Turkey is seeing one of its worst wildfires in decades, with at least nine people killed as of Wednesday. The Turkish government is coming under growing criticism because its fleet of firefighting planes is out of action.

Tourists and locals use buckets to fill a tank on a pickup truck with seawater to douse a nearby advancing fire. Lemis Seper, a volunteer, said it is a desperate struggle, especially in parts that cannot be reached by land.

Seper said, the air reinforcements are too weak. She says there are fires in too many places in Turkey at the moment, and she said crews cannot respond to them.

When the more than hundred fires broke out last week over an area stretching more than a thousand kilometers, Turkey only had three rented Russian firefighting aircraft. That is compared to neighboring Greece, which has more than 20 aircraft to fight the fires that are also raging on its territory.

A man extinguishes a fire in his house in Semir village, near Manavgat, Antalya, Turkey, Aug. 3, 2021.
A man extinguishes a fire in his house in Semir village, near Manavgat, Antalya, Turkey, Aug. 3, 2021.

Local mayor Muhammet Tokat made an emotional appeal on social media for air support to fight the fires.

Tokat said the state should fulfill its responsibilities and save the people from this suffering. He said begs the authorities to send airplanes and helicopters to his area.

Turkey's fleet of about 12 firefighting planes is unfit to fly. The aircraft belong to the Turkish Aeronautical Association set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish secular state nearly a century ago.

A technician makes the last checks before a firefighting helicopter takes off for a wildfire near Marmaris, Turkey, Aug. 3, 2021.
A technician makes the last checks before a firefighting helicopter takes off for a wildfire near Marmaris, Turkey, Aug. 3, 2021.

Critics accuse Turkey's Islamist rooted government of deliberately running down the association, a charge the leadership denies.

Politics and law professor Istar Gozaydin has written several books on religious affairs in Turkey. She said there is hostility among the Islamist base of the ruling AKP party because the Association was initially funded by hides of animals sacrificed during the Muslim festival of Eid.

"It comes from a historical animosity. It was a mandatory act on the part of the secular state to confiscate the financial income of those sacrificed animals because skins have a financial value. Today there is no requirement still the hostility goes on between the religiously sensitive circles in Turkey and the Turkish Aeronautical Association," she said.

Pointing to a fleet of nearly fifty helicopters, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists there are adequate resources to fight the fires. In addition, Erdogan also said, more firefighting airplanes from Russia had arrived, and Iran, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan were also sending aircraft.

But offers of help from Israel and Greece have apparently not yet been accepted.

A firefighting plane from Spain drops water to a wildfire near Koycegiz, Turkey, Aug. 4, 2021.
A firefighting plane from Spain drops water to a wildfire near Koycegiz, Turkey, Aug. 4, 2021.

Two Spanish planes have arrived as part of the EU assistance. Spanish pilot Juan Ramon Martinez Borrego said it is going to be a tough fight.

"The area is very big. We are talking about thousands and thousands of hectares. And also, one of the main problems that we have is the topography of the forest fires that we are attacking and also the high altitude," he said.

More firefighting airplanes from abroad are expected, but for some in Turkey, it's likely to be a bittersweet sight, given many of the aircraft arriving are identical to the Turkish planes that remain out of action.

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