Lessons from forest fires in Turkey
Climate deniers should bow their heads in shame. A series of devastating natural disasters have plagued our planet in recent weeks: from devastating floods in China and Western Europe, to scorching heat waves and deadly drought in North America, to wildfires in the subarctic.
Even in the UK, infamous for its gray and gloomy weather, temperatures soared above 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit) for six straight days across southern England. UK summers are on the verge of scorching 40 degrees Celsius, even though global warming is capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius. Meteorologists fear they have underestimated the veracity and speed with which climate change would be inflicted on us.
Now Turkey is plunged into Dante’s Hell, swept away by a heat wave from southern Europe triggered by hot waves from North Africa, which spread incendiary chaos across the Mediterranean, enveloping Greece and Italy. Climatologists warn that extreme weather events increase the regularity and hellish intensity of forest fires. Data from the European Forest Fire Information Service shows that three times more fires than usual occurred in 2021, setting 140,000 hectares of land on fire.
From Manavgat to Marmaris via Antalya and Bodrum, the southern coast of Turkey has been set ablaze by forest fires. Turkey’s pristine beaches transformed from paradise to purgatory. Citizens in Darwinian survival mode escaped in boats and yachts.
Heat waves, brutal drought, strong winds, low humidity and dry weather all combined to conjure up forest fires sweeping across southwestern Turkey and flames engulfing smoking buildings. As Turkey is engulfed in ashes, volunteers, villagers, firefighters and the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) risk their lives and their members, friends and relatives to contain the raging flames many places burn fervently with relentless stubbornness. Thousands of people have evacuated their homes, tourists have deserted hotels, land has become infertile for agriculture, people have lost their livelihood.
Earlier in 2021, Turkey received warning signals from climate change. In May, eastern Turkey faced drought. Rising temperatures in the Black Sea, Sea of Marmara and Dardanelles have caused the deaths of migratory birds like flamingos, bald ducks and black-winged stilts due to the drought.
These raging fires are pushing back Turkey’s tourism sector, already crippled by COVID-19. Villagers carrying water cans up a hill to put out forest fires argued that the government was not doing enough to support them. Many families have lost everything.
The fire rendered their land infertile for farming, growing vegetables or raising livestock, thus destroying valuable livelihoods. The government’s handling of this crisis is criticized. However, he promised financial lifelines, compensation, additional social security and tax amnesties to those affected.
Lessons to learn
Insightful lessons can be learned from these wildfires. Turkey did not have enough firefighting planes. Nature is sending us warning signals: Nations must be better equipped to anticipate such eventualities, prepare contingency plans and have the necessary health, safety, emergency (HSE) equipment and air assets.
The European Union, Madrid, Baku, Tehran, Kiev, Moscow and Zagreb have all deployed firefighting planes to aid Turkey. Such rescue missions reinforce the growing role of rescue and climate diplomacy in an increasingly volatile world.
In addition, Turkish citizens at risk should be offered frequent training workshops on disaster management, emergency planning, fire prevention and containment.
With a lack of resources in areas affected by the blaze, firefighters from across the country have been dispatched to help. The affected regions must therefore be better endowed with resources and equipment. Natural reforestation and replanting initiatives must be given priority.
The most common reasons for forest fires are heat waves or campfires left by careless picnics. However, many have found these fires suspicious. Turkey’s forestry minister said that forest fires that need to be ignited simultaneously without the force of the wind carrying them further raise doubts.
Turkish law enforcement believes that the root cause of these unprecedented fires in remote areas of the country may well be acts of terror, sabotage or arson. The Turkish Air Force is carrying out counterterrorism operations in northern Iraq, a sanctuary for the terrorist organization PKK.
Activists of the PKK, a terrorist organization nominated by Turkey, the United States and the EU, have a historical record of forest fires. Environmental devastation is one of their retaliatory measures. For example, during the expulsion of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan from Syria in 1998, major forest fires broke out across Turkey, setting fire to forest land and apartment buildings. The Children of Fire Initiative, an entity linked to the PKK, has officially claimed responsibility for the forest fire on Nuce Civan, their online propaganda medium.
Modern reconnaissance satellites and thermal imaging technology can shed light on whether some of the forest fires were arson or terrorism.
Ironically, stricter forest protection laws in Turkey, such as Forest Law number 6831 of 1956, are more likely to start catastrophic fires. While in the United States, contained burns are used to clean forests of parched leaves and rubble, which start forest fires, Turkey bans them, making larger fires more difficult to contain. Turkey should better integrate forests into urban planning as evidenced by this disaster, forest fires are now reaching a peak of a magnitude where they can endanger urban cities.
Turkey needs an updated national forest program in strategic alignment with sustainable forest management by adopting global best practices. More frequent exercises simulating emergency situations as well as their evaluation could be integrated into broader sustainability parameters.
One of the lessons of the current forest fires in Turkey is that the national forest program needs to be updated to include agriculture, energy, tourism and industry, as all are interrelated. The time has come for a new forest law. The Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry needs to better integrate forestry into other related sectors such as wood and non-wood products, environmental services and socio-economic priorities.
Turkey is at a turning point. A decentralized formulation of forest policy, which will further strengthen the powers of regional and local entities of the forest organization of Turkey, is long overdue.
From extreme weather conditions in China to Western Europe and the flash floods in London, now to wildfires in Turkey, 2021 teaches us that everything is interconnected. Floods and forest fires are not isolated events: they are the result of multiple feedback loops in dynamic ecosystems. The flash floods in London in July were catalyzed by summer rainstorms, triggered by warm air rising from the Earth’s surface pushed back in the previous heat wave, creating the rainstorm. In Turkey, as we see now, forest fires have worsened due to previous droughts.
Our planet’s climate is complex, integrated, cataclysmic, involving interactions between land, ocean and atmosphere. Climatologists can no longer study part of this system in a vacuum. There is an urgent need to quickly and intelligently integrate atmospheric sciences, hydrology, earth systems sciences or engineering.
Natural hazards are not independent of each other. It takes more than rain to start a flood and more than a spark to start a forest fire. Our climate systems and weather risks need to be analyzed in an integrated and holistic way.
In Turkey and around the world, fire ecologists should organize joint sessions with marine biologists, hydrologists, meteorological services, climatologists and geo-engineers to better conduct risk and impact assessments. This will provide humanity with a broader understanding of the best mapping and mitigation techniques against global warming and its interconnected extreme weather conditions.
As the climate changes, it will get even hotter and fires will increase. Paying more attention to worsening weather events and their multiplier effects must change the way we live our lives in a warmer world. The climate crisis requires us to conduct interdisciplinary research and develop more sophisticated approaches to disaster risk assessment and climate change modeling that include all weather hazards and their complex and ever-changing interactions.
* Freelance writer and international advisor