Turkish firefighters made progress Friday containing deadly wildfires that forced the evacuation of entire villages and Mediterranean coast hotels already reeling from the shock of the coronavirus pandemic, Agence France-Presse reported.
Blazes that erupted Wednesday to the east of the tourist hotspot Antalya on Turkey’s scenic southern coast have officially killed four people and injured nearly 200.
But they have also threatened to scare off tourists who had only just started to return to Turkey in what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had hoped would be a boon for the developing country’s fragile economy.
The soaring flames turned summer skies dark orange over five-star hotels and villages dotting rolling hills that have been parched by another dry summer.
They had spread by Thursday evening to the Aegean Sea on Turkey’s western coast and spanned a region stretching 300 kilometers (185 miles) and covering most of the country’s top resorts.
Local resident Gülen Dede Tekin came with his family to a five-star hotel in the Mediterranean coast city of Manavgat on Thursday morning and at first thought nothing of the fires raging beyond the hills.
“In the evening, we realized how serious things were when they cut off the electricity and the ventilation at the hotel,” Tekin told AFP.
“This morning, we woke up to a rain of ash.”
The government said 57 of the 71 fires had been contained or entirely put out by Friday morning.
“The situation is improving in all active fires,” Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli told reporters during a visit to the affected region.
But he also confirmed that Turkey no longer had a firefighting plane in its inventory and was only in the process acquiring one under orders from Erdoğan.
Russia has sent three giant aircraft and Turkey’s historic rival Greece — at odds with its neighbor on a wide range of regional disputes — said it was “read to help.”
The blow the fires threaten to deal to Turkey’s tourism-dependent economy and the admission that the country had no firefighting planes has put Erdoğan’s government under pressure.
His office has officially blamed the fires on arson and unspecified “attacks.”
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced the arrest of five people on suspicions of starting one of the blazes in the southern city of Osmaniye.
“Who started these fires,” he asked in televised comments. “We, as well as our citizens, have our suspicions.”
The private DHA news agency said two children — one eight and the other 10 years old — admitted under questioning in the presence of their teacher that they accidentally started one of the fires by burning their books.