Wildfire reaches Turkey power plant, prompts evacuations

International

People stand in front of Kemerkoy Thermal Power Plant with the blaze approaching in the background, in Milas, Mugla, Turkey, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is facing increased criticism over its apparent poor response and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires that have left eight people dead and forced thousands to flee their homes. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

MUGLA, 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 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.

Turkey’s defense ministry said it was evacuating people by sea as the fires neared the plant. The state broadcaster TRT said the flames had “jumped” to the plant. Strong winds were making the fires unpredictable.

Authorities have said safety precautions had been taken at the Kemerkoy power plant and its hydrogen tanks were emptied. TRT said flammable and explosive substances had been removed. The privately run plant uses lignite to generate electricity, according to its website.

Videos from the area showed bright orange, burning hills with power towers and lines crisscrossing the foreground. Pro-government news channel A Hbr broadcasting live from near the evacuated power plant late Wednesday said firefighters were working inside the compound cooling equipment and dousing sparks in an effort to keep the fire away. The channel’s crew showed an incinerated police water cannon.

As the mayor announced the evacuation on Twitter, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was speaking live on A Hbr and said the power plant was at risk of burning. Three ministers were there to oversee developments, he said, and added planes and helicopters had been there all day 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 by shifting winds. At night, air support was not possible at all and videos showed flames in the plant’s vicinity.

The wildfires have turned into yet another partisan issue in Turkey. Erdogan accused opposition party members of a “terror of lies” for criticizing Turkey’s lack of adequate aerial firefighting capabilities and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires. The president said the municipalities were also responsible for protecting towns from fires and that responsibility did not fall on the central government alone but the mayors say they weren’t even invited to crisis coordination.

Firefighters have been trying to protect the power plant for the past two days. Along with police water cannons, they fought back the flames Tuesday night while other rescuers dug ditches around the Kemerkoy plant. Videos from an adjacent neighborhood in Milas showed charred, decimated trees.

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

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.

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 from Israel would come Thursday.

Environmental groups and opposition lawmakers in Turkey have also been voicing fears that fire-damaged forests could lose their protected status.

Turkey’s parliament passed a law in July that gives the tourism ministry power to manage all aspects of new tourism centers, approved by the president, including in forests and on treasury lands for “public good,” 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.

Turkish officials, including Erdogan, have firmly rejected the speculation that the forests were in danger of construction 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.

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.

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.

“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.

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