Over 600 people rescued as Greece, Turkey battle huge forest fires

Turkey has spent less than 2% of the $24 million it had set aside this year to fight forest fires.


Reuters August 06, 2021
A wildfire approaches Greece's Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics, as a heatwave sparks blazes across southeastern Europe - PHOTO: AFP

TURKEY/ GREECE:

Turkish authorities battling the country's worst-ever wildfires have been accused of failing to prepare for the threat after official data showed they spent only a fraction of the modest funds budgeted to prevent forest fires this year.

Meanwhile, over six hundred people were evacuated by boat from an island near Athens as Greece braced for a fourth day of wildfires on Friday with emergency services forecasting strong winds and searing temperatures.

Eight people have been killed in the fires which have swept through Turkey's southwestern coastal regions, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people including tourists and briefly threatening to engulf a power plant.

Read Turkey and Greece reel from raging wildfires during heatwave

President Tayyip Erdogan's government has faced criticism that its response has been slow and inadequate - with opponents zeroing in on a lack of firefighting planes which forced Ankara to scramble to procure them from abroad.

In the last two weeks, fires in Turkey have burnt more than three times the area affected in an average year, a European fire agency said. Neighbouring countries have also battled blazes fanned by heatwaves and strong winds.

Turkey's state forestry agency said that in the first half, it spent less than 2% of the 200 million lira ($24 million) it had set aside this year for construction, projects and equipment used to fight forest fires.

In contrast, Portugal budgeted 224 million euros ($265 million) to prevent and combat forest fires this year, and Spain's central government budgeted 65 million euros.

While countries may measure allocations differently, opposition politicians said the data published by Turkey's General Directorate of Forestry (OGM) showed Erdogan's government disregarded a predictable danger.

"The OGM budget was planned as if there wasn't going to be any fires," said Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy Murat Emir, who filed parliamentary questions to the Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli on Tuesday.

"These figures show why there has not been effective intervention against the fires," Emir said, adding the ministry had been "caught unprepared".

The ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters questions about the spending, and it was not clear if other resources were allocated for forest fire protection apart from the forestry directorate budget.

The government has blamed the lack of resources on the Turkish Aeronautical Association (THK), saying it failed to maintain a fleet of firefighting planes despite generous funding.

"They say 'We can't renew the planes due to material difficulties', whereas they could have used this money to renew the planes rather than spending it elsewhere," Pakdemirli was quoted as telling the Haberturk news website.

Among the 16 planes and 51 helicopters in the current operation are aircraft from Russia, Spain, Ukraine, Croatia, Iran and Azerbaijan.

Emir, the opposition politician, noted that the OGM report showed forest-fire related spending plans included purchase of 26 helicopters, for which spending plans set aside a nominal sum of only 1,000 lira ($119).

He asked the minister why resources for helicopter purchases had not been allocated if the ministry did not have enough planes or helicopters.

The report budgeted 40 million lira to build an airplane and helicopter hangar and 15 million lira to buy walkie-talkies, but showed no funds were spent on these in the first half.

It also showed planned construction of 192 km of fire safety roads, with just 34 km completed so far.

In a television interview on Wednesday, Erdogan said the opposition was spreading a "terrorism of lies" concerning the fire-fighting operation, adding his government had handled natural disasters professionally during its 19 years in power.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) has requested an investigation, alleging fire preparations and responses were late and inadequate.

It also voiced concern about Turkey not ratifying the Paris accord on climate change - the only G20 country not to do so yet - and linked the issue to the fires.

"The non-ratification of this accord is a reflection of the government policies which have led to massacres of nature," the HDP, parliament's third-largest political force, said.

GREECE EVACUATES HUNDREDS FROM ISLAND

Hundreds of people were evacuated by boat from an island near Athens as Greece braced for a fourth day of wildfires on Friday with emergency services forecasting strong winds and searing temperatures.

Coastguard vessels assisted by tourist boats have picked up 631 people since late Thursday from three beaches on the island of Evia, where the flames have burned through a vast area of pine forest since Tuesday and reached the sea.

They were all moved to safety and sea patrols are continuing in case of emergency, a coastguard official said.

The skies of Athens were again clouded by thick smoke from wildfires on the northern outskirts of the city, which burst back into life on Thursday after dying down earlier in the week.

A number of suburbs have been evacuated as the fire burned around the main highway linking Athens to northern Greece and hundreds of firefighters with water-bombing aircraft were trying to prevent the flames from reaching the nearby town of Marathon.

Temperatures have been over 40 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) all week and no let-up was expected on Friday with gale force winds expected to spread the flames further.

So far, at least nine people have been taken to hospital with varying degrees of injury, including two volunteer firefighters treated for burns in intensive care units in Athens, health officials said.

With neighbouring Turkey also battling huge wildfires for more than a week, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Thursday Greece needed to strengthen its preparedness for severe weather brought on by climate change.

 

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