When Derya Kır, a 25-year old lawyer who works as a volunteer at Greenpeace, travelled from his home to provide emergency aid to villages along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey last August, he came across an old lady sitting outside of her fire-blackened house. Kır asked what the woman planned to do next. She did not know; all of her belongings, life savings, and animals had been consumed by the fire.

“People were just sitting outside of their houses, but they didn’t have anywhere to go,” Kır said in an interview with The Politic. With their houses turned to ash  and no material possessions left, the woman’s fellow villagers, like her, had nothing to do but wait. 

This elderly woman is one of hundreds whose lives were drastically changed in the wake of Turkey’s wildfires, which blazed through the country’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts this summer. The fires in Turkey were some of the many which affected countries worldwide, including Greece, Lebanon, Italy, Spain, France, the United States, and New Zealand. 

Turkey was ravaged by 133 fires in the first half of 2021 alone. Although wildfires are not uncommon in the region during the summer months — between the years of 2008 and 2020, an average of 43 fires hit Turkey yearly — heatwaves in the area make it easier for fires to spread. While the cause of the Mediterranean fires still remains unknown, experts believe that climate change drives the extreme weather events. The Turkish government initially responded to the fires by blaming outlawed Kurdish militant groups, alleging arson. Turkish citizens and the international community, however, criticized the governments’ response to and management of the crisis. Citizens of Turkey and the international community have roundly criticized the Turkish government for its inefficient management of the fires and its reluctance to project weakness and accept foreign aid.

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Çağatay Tavşanoğlu, an ecologist at Hacettepe University in Ankara who specializes in vegetation and  fire ecology, explained in an interview with The Politic that wildfires are caused by the confluence of various factors, including rural-urban migration, tourism, forestation activities and climate change. According to Tavşanoğlu, a well-intentioned forestation project begun by the Turkish government several decades ago to fill natural gaps in forest growth has actually made it more difficult to contain the fires. Meanwhile, human practices, like mining, creating dumpsites, and the heavy use of industrial machines, also contribute to the ignition of the blazes, as they increase the chances of an initial spark. 

At the onset of the fires, prior even to engaging emergency state firefighting responses, the ruling government, led by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, publicly blamed Kurdish militants in an apparent attempt to evade responsibility. Government trolls helped spread disinformation on social media, explained Senem Aydın Düzgit, a Professor of International Relations at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Sabancı University. The allegations mainly centered around the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish militant political organization present in southeastern Turkey. While PKK historically sought an independent Kurdish state, its aims have shifted towards autonomy and increased rights for Kurds, an ethnic group native to the mountainous region of Kurdistan in West Asia that includes territories within Turkey. Turkey has long opposed Kurdish self-determination and the preservation of Kurdish culture.

But while intentional arson offers a provocative explanation for the recent wildfires, it is unlikely that an organized group would or could set fires of this quantity and scale, according to Tavşanoğlu.

Despite their efforts to dodge public censure, the Turkish government has received domestic and international criticism for its management of the crisis. According to Erdoğan Atmış, a forestry policy expert, evidence suggested that two decades of rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) have fueled the unchecked spread of the wildfires.

Every year, significant time and money is allocated to fire rescue and response in Turkey, including advanced camera and drone technology to better detect wildfires from kilometers away. But Turkey is still woefully underprepared. Although Erdoğan currently has a private fleet of 13 planes, Turkey does not own a single operational firefighting plane. By contrast, there are 39 firefighting planes in neighboring country Greece’s inventory. 

The problem isn’t just on the national level: the absence of communication between local municipalities, humanitarian aid NGOs, and the national government has also contributed to confusion and inaction. 

As far as he has observed, the people involved in the fire extinguishing process were mostly volunteers, whose actual jobs varied from bankers to engineers to teachers. “These are people who did not even light a fire in their lives,” said Kır. “They [officials] soon needed help and allowed us [volunteers] to enter the area. You see it is burning, you know there are not enough people to help and there is not another alternative. I don’t think there is anywhere else where you could feel how there is no government and how insufficient the government is to this extent.”

Untrained volunteer enthusiasm cannot be the solution to governmental inadequacy, particularly when the job demands strategic decision making, and, at the very least, professional safety precautions. 

Bureaucratic barriers stonewalled emergency interventions that firefighters often needed to make. For example, government teams often could not obtain permission to cut the trees necessary to put safe distances between themselves and the wildfires. When veterinarians and volunteers independently tried to rescue animals, their attempts were also stonewalled by state institutions. 

“The government wanted everything to be in its hands, to regulate everything and make all the decisions,” Kır said. 

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Turkish citizens and the international community have harshly criticized Turkey’s refusal to accept aid from foreign aid from the EU and other western nations. Turkey eventually was forced to accept help from several non-EU countries, including Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia and Ukraine. 

Local mayors in regions affected by the fires also appealed to the public on social media channels with a trending Twitter campaign called #HelpTurkey after they couldn’t get the help they had anticipated from the government. Public pressure against the Turkish government mounted as live videos from volunteers and foreign reporters revealed the real conditions of the Turkish fires.

But government officials interpreted the hashtags and videos as embarrassing signs of Turkey’s weakness. Erdoğan’s primary spokesman, Fahrettin Altun, tweeted, “Our Turkey is strong. Our state is standing tall,” while promoting an anti-campaign under the name of #StrongTürkiye. while Turkey’s broadcasting authority ordered television networks to limit news coverage of the wildfires, reporting as if the wildfires had already been extinguished.

“There is a national narrative, a national identity that the government is trying to create, which is that Turkey is self-sufficient, and what’s more, helping other countries across the world. This is especially a discourse against the West,” explained Düzgit. “West adverseness is not something new in Turkey, it has been here for years. However, this situation isn’t only about that. It’s both West adverseness and a superior identity discourse of how self-capable Turkey is and how capable it is to help others.”

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Nine people and more than 2,000 farm animals died in this summer’s wildfires. More than 30 villages were decimated, 4,000 tourists and staff were evacuated, and 160,000 acres of forest were destroyed. If the present government chooses not to prepare for the coming summers, future wildfires will have even more disastrous consequences for Turkey’s fire-torn populations. 

Many measures need to be taken to protect the country against wildfires in the long term, one being the country’s ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement. While Turkey signed the Agreement when it was first adopted by 196 parties in 2015, Erdoğan said in late September that his administration will present the agreement to the Turkish Grand National Assembly for its formal approval. This means that the country will start to shape its domestic policies to greatly reduce carbon emissions.

According to Düzgit,  Erdoğan’s “sudden” urgency toward the environmental crisis might just be a political tactic to gain international approval — particularly given the country’s record of unfriendly environmental policies and the numerous coal plants still being planned for development. 

“[Erdoğan] returned from America and started to say completely different things about climate. He said that Turkey will immediately sign the Paris Climate Agreement and gave ostentatious dates for transferring to the carbon-free period. Yet, I am not sure if the real reason behind this is climate change and the wildfires we went through last summer, or, as Turkey has started to become internationally estranged day by day, a narrative that Turkey can sell, especially to America,” said Düzgit. 

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Kır and his fellow volunteers are doing what they can to prepare for the likelihood that they will have to fend off more blazes soon. Their on-the-ground work has led to small but meaningful improvements: they’re currently providing fire shoes to villagers whose shoes — oftentimes rawhide sandals called çarıks — would otherwise melt. 

Still, taking meaningful steps to address these wildfires requires more than new pairs of shoes. 

Turkey must successfully overcome its historically fraught tensions with the West and set aside its age-old national identity crisis to prioritize the universal crisis of climate change. 

If not, the politicization of forest wildfires will continue to take lives and destroy ecosystems. The people who bear the brunt of these political impasses are often already marginalized communities, like the Kurdish minorities residing in Turkey. 

“We shouldn’t forget wildfires are natural. They have been happening for over 400 million years. They were here before us and will continue to happen,” Tavşanoğlu said. “What makes them a disaster are human beings….  Policy changes, forest management and so on: these are all adjustable and controllable things, because they are caused by us. Wildfires are a reality, and we will learn to live with them.”

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