President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has attracted widespread criticism for its poor handling of major wildfires in western and southern provinces that have so far claimed the lives of four people and injured more than 180 while also taking a toll on wildlife and farm animals.
Fifty-seven fires out of a total of 71 that erupted in 21 provinces since around noon on Wednesday have been brought under control, with cooling efforts underway, while the remaining 14 are continuing to burn, according to the latest statement from Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli.
The harsh criticism targeting Turkish authorities centered around Erdoğan’s inaction and the small number of firefighting planes actively used to respond to fires. According to local media reports, Turkey had only one plane available to respond to the fires so leased two more from Russia for TL 1.3 million ($154,563) per day.
The Turkish Aeronautical Association (THK), a non-profit organization whose planes had been used in firefighting for decades, has been unable to participate in tenders for leasing firefighting aircraft in the last two years due to tender specifications, Turkish media reports said.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry stipulates in the tenders that the minimum capacity of the aircraft should be 5,000 liters while THK planes have 4,900-liter tanks.
“Turkey is on fire… The president is nowhere to be found. Where is he, on vacation? Why doesn’t he ask the world for help? Why doesn’t he facilitate the use of THK planes? Are they waiting for the whole country to be burned to ashes?” Yıldırım Kaya, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), tweeted on Friday.
While many social media users slammed Erdoğan for not visiting the regions affected by the fires, the presidency only released a statement late Thursday, saying Erdoğan was in contact with Pakdemirli, Environment and Urbanization Minister Murat Kurum and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who are on the scene, and that he wished God’s mercy on those who died in the fires.
Videos circulating on social media also showed Çavuşoğlu being booed by a crowd in the early hours of Friday in Antalya’s Manavgat district, one of the regions most severely affected by the wildfires.
In the videos, a person is heard asking the minister, “Doesn’t the government have any planes to send here?” to which Çavuşoğlu replies, “We have three and all of them were here today. One left the region later on.” The person then says, “Does the Turkish Republic only have three firefighting planes? There are currently 10 sitting idle in the THK hangar.”
Local media also reported on Friday that Muğla Mayor Osman Gürün had called THK on Thursday with the aim of leasing firefighting planes but couldn’t reach anybody in charge. Gürün was told by the operator that all the officials had left at around 3:30 p.m. and that he could talk to them the next morning, according to the reports.
Turkish media reports also said Turkey’s former Customs and Commerce Minister Cenap Aşçı, who was appointed chairman of the board of THK in 2019, drew criticism on social media after he admitted during a TV program late on Thursday to have attended a wedding ceremony while massive forest fires were raging across the country.
Pakdemirli on Friday said in a press statement that the ministry has never had firefighting planes or helicopters in its inventory and that they have started working on procuring planes for the inventory, on the orders of the president.
Wildfires are common in Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean regions during the arid summer months, although some forest fires have been blamed on arson.