Wildfire reaches Turkey power plant, prompts evacuations

·6 min read

MARMARIS, Turkey (AP) — A coal-fueled power plant in southwest Turkey and nearby residential areas were being evacuated Wednesday evening as flames from a wildfire reached inside the plant, a mayor and local reporters said as sirens from the plant could be heard blaring.

Milas Mayor Muhammet Tokat, from Turkey’s main opposition party, has been warning of the fire risks for the past two days for the Kemerkoy power plant in Mugla province. He said late Wednesday that the plant was being evacuated. Local reporters said the wildfires had also prompted the evacuation of the nearby seaside area of Oren.

Authorities have said safety precautions have been taken at the Kemerkoy power plant and its hydrogen tanks had been emptied.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the plant was at risk of burning and that three ministers were there. He said planes and helicopters were working there all day there to fight the fires.

But the mayor said air support came infrequently and only focused on the closer flames around the plant rather than addressing the wider fires in the area that were being fanned with shifting winds.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

MARMARIS, Turkey (AP) — Environmental groups and opposition lawmakers in Turkey are voicing fears that fire-damaged forests could lose their protected status, a claim the government rejected as wildfires burned for an eighth day Wednesday in the country's Mediterranean region.

Environmental groups have pleaded on social media for Turkey to get assistance in containing the fires that have consumed some of the forests they protect. But critics are also warning of another threat to forests after Turkey's parliament passed a law in July that allows the president to change the status of forests into tourism development sites if it's for the “public good.”

Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have firmly rejected the speculation and said the burned forests were protected by the constitution and would be reforested. While the exact acreage burned in the past week remains unclear, officials have promised the affected areas would not be transformed for other purposes.

The government’s assurance, however, has not eased worries.

Critics pointed to pictures of a forest area burned more than a decade ago that was turned into a massive hotel resort. They have also blamed a string of recent environmental disasters in Turkey — including a slimy sea snot outbreak in the Marmara Sea, deadly floods and severe drought — on megaprojects, industrial sites and rampant construction.

While the Turkish Constitution mandates the reforestation of woodlands after wildfires, experts warned the new law that became official with Erdogan's approval last week could further open up healthy forests to tourism and construction.

Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Bekir Pakdemirli said last week that development fears arise during wildfire season but that the constitution was clear. He said there were certain exceptions for state institutions and tourism.

“For that, the forests do not need to be burned,” he said.

The legal amendments give the tourism ministry power to manage all aspects of new tourism centers, approved by the president, including in forests and on treasury lands, taking away responsibilities from the ministries of environment and forestry. The law says these locations would be identified according to their tourism potential, considering the country’s natural, historic and cultural values.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, tweeted the new law gave the Ministry of Culture and Tourism “construction” authority in forests. Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party submitted a draft amendment Tuesday, saying it aimed to ensure burned forests would not be opened up to construction.

“All the places have burned and turned to ash, but his concern is to turn rock and mountain into concrete,” Kilicdaroglu said, referring to Erdogan. The opposition politician said he would stand in front of excavators if “a single brick” were placed in a protected forest.

The ruling party hit back, saying that many opposition lawmakers did not even attend the parliament session during which the law was voted on.

Environmentalists were already protesting mining licenses issued for parts of some forests and trying to stop companies from cutting down trees. They have staged sit-ins across Turkey, most recently in Mugla province, where wildfires continued Wednesday.

A 2020 report by the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion showed that 58% of Turkey’s forests have been licensed to mines. About 59% of Mugla, where the fires have been raging, has been designated for mines, it said.

The debate comes as Erdogan’s government is under criticism for its allegedly poor response and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires. Officials have said they were working strategically and with full force to fight the fires which erupted in 34 provinces over the past week.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said another firefighting plane and its staff would come from Azerbaijan on Thursday morning and 40 firetrucks would drive to Turkey to help with the fires. He announced four rented firefighting planes had landed and two more rented from a company in Israel would come Thursday.

Scorching heat, low humidity and strong winds have fed the fires, which so far have killed eight people and countless animals and destroyed forests. Villagers have had to evacuate their homes and livestock, while tourists have fled in boats and cars. In the seaside town province of Mugla, where tourist hot spot Bodrum is located, seven fires continued. In Antalya, at least two fires raged on and two neighborhoods had to be evacuated.

Two power stations in Mugla’s Milas district have been at risk in the fires, where authorities said safety precautions had been taken.

Firefighters and police water cannons fought back the flames overnight while other rescue officials dug ditches around the Kemerkoy plant. The crisis was averted Wednesday evening after planes dropped water on nearby flames. Videos from an adjacent neighborhood in Milas showed charred, decimated trees while firefighters continued dousing the area with water.

Officials say 167 fires had been brought under control and 16 continued in five provinces. Thousands of firefighters and civilians were working to douse the flames.

“I won’t be able to see the forests that will be replanted. Maybe my kids won’t even see them,” said Resit Yavuz, a resident in Marmaris, in Mugla province. “There are no trees left. There’s nowhere left for fires to erupt.”

A heat wave across southern Europe, fed by hot air from North Africa, has led to wildfires across the Mediterranean, including in Italy and Greece. Temperatures in Marmaris reached an all-time high of 45.5 C (114 F) on Tuesday.

The heatwave is forecast to continue in Turkey and Greece until the end of the week.

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Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.

Mehmet Guzel And Zeynep Bilginsoy, The Associated Press

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