The forest fire season has officially begun. From the beginning of May until the end of October, Fethiye’s fire fighters and forest defenders are on a constant alert, and like every summer they will bravely extinguish fires that too often other people are responsible for starting.
Protecting Fethiye’s forests
Unlike the thousands of people who live in Turkey or flock to its southern shores for holidays, fire fighters and forest defenders have no time to relax during the high season. Instead, they are on duty non-stop from May to October, often battling head to head with wildfires.
FT recently spoke with Oktay Tamer, the Turkish observer pilot for the Fethiye based helicopter; one of the four fire fighting helicopter in Muğla. The others are in Marmaris, Milas and Kuyuçak. They also work closely with their colleagues in Finike (Antalya) and Denizli.
Asked if his job is dangerous, Tamer shrugged. Like the rest of the team he takes the nature of their work in his stride.
The team that flies the Fethiye-based helicopter, leased from Ukraine, comprises two Moldovan pilots, a Turkish military observer pilot, an expert in hitting a target with water, a technician and a Forest Ministry official who specializes in navigation and understanding the local environment. There is also two ground staff. They are duty during from May to the end of October and must leap into action at the drop of a hat.
Investing in education
During the winter months teams of experts travel the coasts from the eastern Mediterranean to Istanbul to educate locals in forest fire prevention and help build up fire fighting facilities in vulnerable areas.
And according to the Environment and Forestry Ministry, it is Turkey’s efforts to increase preventative measures over the past decade that has elevated the country to the top ranks globally in preventative forest fire fighting.
Turkey in the vanguard
A spokesman from the Forest Ministry said that although Turkey suffers from high levels of forest fire damage compared to most European countries, in recent years it has been more successful in stopping fires before they start.
Millions of people live in or near Turkey’s 22 million hectares of forests, making it hard for authorities to protect these fragile and vulnerable areas. Turkey’s forests cover 26% of the country and are mostly on the coasts or in the immediate hinterland. They play an important part in Turkey’s rich, diverse ecological environment and are very productive: timber and honey being among the most important.
While Turkey’s forests appear to be lush and green, they are in fact highly vulnerable to fire: most often from a cigarette tossed out a car window, travellers who fail to extinguish their campfire, picnickers who lose control of their barbecue, or farmers who burn the remains of their crops after harvesting. Other significant but less common causes include hunting guns, broken electric cables, lightening, glass rubbish and occasionally arson.
Fethiye’s forest operations manager detailed the efforts being made to lessen the impact of wildfires.
To prevent forest fires and to extinguish them as soon as possible, many precautions have been taken, such as education, keeping forest observation posts [on the top of mountains] active 24 hours a day, hiring temporary forest labourers, providing helicopters and pumps and making better use of natural water resources.”
One example of these improvements is concrete open-water depots that have been constructed at strategic points around Turkey’s most vulnerable forests for use by fire fighting helicopters. Built during the last decade, the depots mean that helicopters can load up with water in five minutes, rather than 30.
A destructive force of nature
It is a sad fact that forest fires ravage the countryside every year, resulting in the death of people and displacing whole communities: burning animals, birds and insects as well as trees.
Turkey has worked hard to make sure there are highly trained teams of fire fighters in every province: brave men who put their own lives at risk to save people and the environment.
During a pervious interview FT made with a forestry expert five years ago, he said,
Statistics reveal that most fires happen either on market days, or at the weekend when people take time off to have a barbecue in a quiet rural spot. The annual number of recorded fires are statistically constant, but the damage they do is less than before because of improved techniques, technology and surveillance. The fact is that more people are more mobile than they used to be and that better roads mean remote areas are more accessible, but this works in our favour, too. We can get to the fires more quickly”.
Muğla and Antalya are two of Turkey’s provinces that can suffer most from the effects of fires. Two-thirds of Muğla is covered by forest and the province has a large diversity of trees, including red pine, massive ancient plane trees, rare Liquidambar Orientalis, known locally as Günlük or Siğla, Laurus Nobilis or Bay trees and near the coasts, Arbutus Andrachne or Sandal Ağacı, to name but a few.
To prevent new fires, maquis and scrub along 202 kilometers of roads and highways has been removed and the burning of crop remnants will be banned between June 1 and Oct. 31, but it seems that enforcement is difficult, especially in remote areas.
We should not forget what forests mean for to those living in or nearby; forests are their homes, their only legacy and only way of making money. The state does not compensate for damage to the forests or provide aid to those villagers when their home and land burns. Partly filling the gap in state aid, Turkish NGO OR-KOOP pays around 1,700 Euros [2011 prices] to those who lose their homes in a forest fire.
In addition to fighting fires on Turkish soil, these teams of experienced men sometimes travel to help other countries that have raging wild fires. For example, in August 2009 Turkey agreed to send a fire-fighting plane to neighbouring Greece, where devastating forest fires killed more than 60 people.
Other Mediterranean countries, including Italy, France and Greek Cyprus are also pooling resources to fight forest fires.
Take care and be watchful
Picnics, camp fires and barbecues are banned in forest areas. Fireworks, Chinese (wish) lanterns are banned at this time of year too. Even if you see them for sale please don’t buy them. If you smoke cigarettes in your car don’t throw the butts out of the window.
If you see what you think may be a forest fire or are witness to suspicious behaviour immediately call 177.
This is a shortened version of an article by the author first published in 2010