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EU sends help to Turkey as wildfire toll reaches eight

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The European Union sent help to Turkey on Monday and volunteers joined firefighters in battling a week of violent blazes that have killed eight people and put pressure on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Agence France-Presse reported.

The wildfires tearing through the resort regions of Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coasts have destroyed huge swathes of pristine forest and forced the evacuation of panicked tourists from their hotels.

But they have also exposed Erdoğan — facing an election in two years that could extend his rule into a third decade — to a new round of criticism over his seemingly sluggish and out-of-touch response.

The Turkish leader came under especially strong criticism over the weekend for tossing bags of tea to locals while touring one of the most badly-affected regions under heavy police escort.

The government has also disclosed that it had no firefighting planes in its inventory and had to rely on foreign help to battle the flames.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu thanked Brussels on Monday for sending a plane from Croatia and two from Spain.

The European Union said it “stands in full solidarity with Turkey at this very difficult time” — a message designed to show goodwill after more than a year of heated disputes.

Firefighters on Monday also battled local blazes on the Greek island of Rhodes in the Aegean as well as parts of Italy and Spain.

Fanned by soaring temperatures and strong winds — with experts saying that climate change increases both the frequency and intensity of such blazes — EU data show this year’s fire season has been significantly more destructive than most. 

‘Really bad’

Erdoğan’s office at first blamed the worst fires in Turkey in at least a decade on arsonists that pro-government media linked to outlawed Kurdish militants waging a deadly insurgency against the state.

But that theory appeared to vanish as the number of fires grew, the toll mounted and the days wore on.

Turkey’s forestry directorate said 105 fires had been recorded in 35 towns and cities across the country since Wednesday.

It said seven — most of them not far from the southern resort cities of Antalya and Marmaris — continued to burn on Monday.

An AFP team in Marmaris on the Aegean Sea saw flames simmer across the crests of forest-covered hills.

The night sky glowed amber and the smoke-filled air was heavy and hard to breathe in stifling heat of around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Weather services warned locals of poor air quality and volunteers spent sleepless nights helping fatigued firefighters save lush forests from devastation that experts say may take generations to restore.

“This is a disaster,” resident Evran Özkan said at a makeshift assistance centre set up by the sides of a road leading to the burning hills.

“Like me, many inhabitants of Marmaris cannot put their heads on their pillow to sleep peacefully while these fires burn.”

Firefighters with flashlights wrapped around their foreheads sat eating simple meals from containers and drinking bottled water that locals gathered from neighboring towns.

Emergency rescue boats stood on standby by the Marmaris shoreline to evacuate anyone should the fires spread and the town be cut off.

“We must be responsible for our land to prevent our future from burning,” said Ozkan, “But the situation is really bad now.”

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