When Nature’s Force Turns Into Political Intrigue

This year’s wildfires in Turkey are framed as a war to win. I joined a volunteer disaster response team — and saw neither war nor victory

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When Nature’s Force Turns Into Political Intrigue
Citizens help with the battle against fires as ground and aerial extinguishing operations continue to battle against forest fires / Mugla, Turkey / Aug. 03, 2021 / Ali Balli / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

I heard the sound of the flames, like crashing waves, only after we were ordered to evacuate the scene. Until then, the sound had been drowned out by walkie talkies, running motors, beeping excavators, and the footsteps and shouts of about 200 people who had come to help tame the wildfire. We had already walked, single file, a few hundred meters along the gravel road and reached the firetrucks when the winds started blowing in our direction. About halfway back, we stopped and the field hushed. Everyone ogled the flames, tall even from our distance, pumping whirls of smoke so high that I couldn’t see the black sky unless I tilted my head all the way up. We could do nothing but let it burn.

I remembered the words of one of our team leaders: “Think of this as a war.” We must study and be ready for every move. This metaphor worked for the wildfires most of the time, and I found myself extending it to help make sense of the situation.

But I also sensed that the metaphor had flaws. Man and nature are not enemies, nor does nature have intentions of its own. But here in Turkey, the metaphor was useful for one thing: to call out the enemy within.

This wildfire season, like most recent seasons, has been the worst on record. Flames have scoured Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Spain, Oregon and California, trouncing even the world’s most sophisticated firefighting forces. In Turkey, 162 fires have burned through 181,000 hectares (699 square miles) of forest, especially along its Aegean coast, almost five times the yearly average. The country has been caught unprepared and defenseless.

The loss is explained away as sabotage. To Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and many who think like him, the excess of fires must be the work of terrorists, likely Kurdish, intent on destroying the rich resources of the country. The interior minister said he received nearly 300 notices of suspicious activity, such as firing guns into the forest, but no investigation has confirmed these claims.

Opposition leaders and their partisans also cry arson, or at least intentional negligence. Their culprit is hotel moguls close to the government, for whom forests impede the expansion of their resorts. They note that in past years, burnt plots along the same Aegean coast have been swiftly sold for reforestation but are instead converted into high-end hotels.

We were barely a week into the fire season, and theories about who started them were capturing Turkish social media. I had heard of colleagues who were refused entry to affected villages and made to erase their photos. So, when I received a text message asking if I would join the disaster response in the Marmaris region as a volunteer, I agreed. I wanted to help, and I wanted to see up close what was going on.

The message I received was sent by the Neighborhood Disaster Volunteers-Emergency Response Team (MAG-AME), a group certified by the national disaster agency that had organized a training workshop in my neighborhood in Istanbul in March. I had signed up to the workshop to feel useful after being shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, the October earthquake in Izmir and ever-grimmer news about what scenarios to expect as the climate crisis gains momentum. I had just completed 30 hours of training, so the message struck me as desperate.

We met in the evening in Şişli, a district in Istanbul, where we boarded a bus that, along with two drivers, the municipality had provided for us. There were 15 of us, and we picked up five more as we headed south. Within four days, I would get to know these volunteers well: a few were students, but most were middle-aged — teachers, freelancers, salespeople, retirees, housewives. (One complained that her husband objected to her decision: “What need is there, you have children to look after.”) To my surprise, and theirs, I was one of three foreigners.

MAG-AME is nonpartisan, but this team was a loose grouping of the opposition, views stretching all the way from the far-right to Kemalist to socialist to plain angry. Our first conversation was over a late roadside dinner. Every topic led to how the disaster response was bungled. When I said that I was writing an article about the trip, Nilüfer, one of the two organizers, shook her head and said, “In Turkey, no one believes the media anymore.”

I woke up after dawn to an odor that hit me like the stench of a slaughterhouse.

I woke up after dawn to an odor that hit me like the stench of a slaughterhouse. It had the spice of a bonfire with a huskier tone: dead pine and brush and all flavors of carcass. The low clouds were a dusty mauve, but the vegetation was still green, drooping and twisting and sprouting out of each other. Half an hour in, I saw plumes of smoke coming out of the hilltops ahead, like volcanoes huffing after an eruption.

The bus parked in a village called Turgut at a spot that MAG-AME volunteers had doused the week before. As villagers set up breakfast, a few dozen people rested under wooden gazebos then dressed in shirts that tested my knowledge of the geography of the country. Besides national staff, like first aid workers and forest management, there were firefighters and search-and-rescue teams dispatched from municipalities from all across the western coastline, plus a bit inland, areas that are firm opposition country.

In a normal season, responsibility for wildfires is split between the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which oversees all of Turkey’s forests, and the local fire department. When the job is too big for both to handle, they can call fire departments from other municipalities, and if it escalates, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) can activate a crisis desk. This year, AFAD, busy with floods in the north and fires further east, only took charge of housing those evacuated. Municipalities were told to lead the show.

In four days, I saw two AFAD sedans and a handful of police. They had as much of a presence as the jumble of other uniforms: pro-government humanitarian groups passing out ayran (a yoghurt drink); animal rights campaigners caring for wounded dogs; anti-riot squads driving water cannons; the Azerbaijani civil defense delivering emergency aid; workers for petroleum and construction conglomerates transporting water (one of them had been called out for building a hotel in Bodrum on scorched land); and rotating cohorts of unaffiliated volunteers — locals, vacationers, anarchists and concerned citizens.

The firefighters also came from different worlds: “You can tell who comes from which department,” Nilüfer said as she nudged my arm. Istanbul’s men were muscular, alert and had an air of professionalism; those from more rural areas had round bellies and seemed to be learning on the job.

We huddled under one of the gazebos with eight more MAG-AME volunteers as Hüseyin, the other organizer, addressed the whole team for the first time. Don’t talk too much to people outside our group. Don’t tell others how to do their job. Don’t complain. However chaotic things may get, we must look organized and competent. We represent MAG-AME and nobody else; if you jeopardize that name, like two volunteers did last week, you won’t be invited back.

I collected fire-resistant gear before getting back onto the bus. It was like we were driving into a time and space that oscillated between the days of pagan legends and those of end times. From the left window, a wall of limestone, olive and coniferous trees, mangled shrub, stray goats and hens, and modest white houses breezed past us. The view was interrupted, briefly, by patches of skinny skeletal trunks growing out of black and silver ash. From the right window, pockets of the Aegean stood calm. Yachts parked offshore in clusters, probably trying to get a view of the helicopters that dropped in every 10 minutes or so to scoop water, and unsuspecting fish, from low-hanging buckets.

The bus driver let us off on the side of a dirt road, across from a water pump. We soon realized that we would spend the next few days mastering the art of waiting. The geography of Marmaris was friendly to us. We sat under a lime tree and debated whether the stone structure behind us, labeled Hygassos on Google Maps, was a castle, a cemetery or a watchtower. One volunteer picked figs and grapes, but their juices were too hot for some to eat. The women in the group exchanged tips on where to pee and pray. We refused home-cooked meals and cold beverages at least five times an hour.

“The fires are waiting for us, and we just sit here,” one of the newcomers grumbled. Nilüfer and Hüseyin would excuse themselves now and then to answer their walkie talkies. They shared a channel with the Istanbul Fire Department, which would collect fire sightings in our zone, evaluate them with drones and personnel and send teams accordingly. Most wildfires were too deep into the forest or four to five times higher than their trucks could access. Those closer to a road needed excavators to clear the way and dig ditches to slow their spread. The ones that approached villages or power stations were the priority.

Nilüfer and Hüseyin were waiting for a fire that was both accessible and rendered safe; as volunteers, all we could do was help the firefighters cool what was already put out. Even if the radius we sprayed was wide, a hot branch or pine cone could always fall onto dry ground nearby and inflame the area anew.

It was already evening when I heard what sounded like a stadium caving in. The shrills came in waves, at first in chorus, then in different pitches. A red scar blazed its way down the wooded mount in front of us. It was like all animals with a voice were trying to pierce through the static of the walkie talkies. But our next mission was further down the road, to a fire that was billowing even more black smoke than the three others in our view.

We followed a caravan of trucks into a low grove. The cicadas seemed overstimulated, feeling the change in heat and pace of their habitat. Two villagers were out tending to the bees that had escaped their nest boxes; the others had heaped their wooden furniture by the roadside and gone. The volunteer in front of me took out his phone to snap a photo of a developing fire to our side, but the one behind me, my assigned buddy, told him to put it back in his pocket.

“That sounds like censorship to me,” the first one said.

“You’re not allowed to take photos of these kinds of incidents, it’s a matter of national security,” the other responded.

“Brother, I don’t agree with you. Anyway, we’ll talk afterward.”

We marched past 10 firetrucks and other groups in helmets, some in bikinis and without masks. Half of us stayed put, and the other half rushed to help tug at a hose that slithered up a dirt slope and deliver water bottles to those working up there. We took their place as a smaller crew ventured further up, and then we mounted the slope to a landing where white mist clung to the floor and sparks whizzed up in the air. Fat moths stumbled blindly into my legs.

We hauled two hoses into the thicket, careful not to let them brush against the still-steaming ground or the trunks that looked slit by residual flames. In between tasks, I watched as bright spots on the mount in front us merged and reproduced the scene from before we embarked. The three firefighters among us had a glance and went back to their sandwiches.

After a good two hours of work, the fire chief called to us: “Please gather around me, I have something to tell you.” He attended to his walkie talkie, then told us, “There are rumors spreading on social media that firefighters are waiting and watching the fires burn. It’s your job to debunk them.”

The fire chief went on to explain that his men are tired, the water is scarce, the technology is limited, and the pumps and cars are worn out. As if on cue, we heard an explosion down below: a popped tire. The firefighters do only as much as they can, he said, because if they deplete their energy, they won’t have any left for the next day when they might have to do the same work over again, but with strained forces. What’s burned will burn; their duty is to save lives and property.

That’s where we come in. He asked for the phone numbers of all team leaders with us. “I can’t exchange numbers, sir, I’m livestreaming,” one woman said.

The next morning opened with the drone of two helicopters and the screech of an excavator across the street. My buddy showed me an app that tracks heat and wind patterns: The Marmaris area had been dotted red yesterday and today was one amorphous blob, barely a shade lighter, representing 10,000 watts per square meter. We were waiting to hear if we would go to Milas, where fires had reached a power station the night before, or central Muğla, the hottest spot in Turkey.

The answer was the latter. We piled onto the bus and passed out heavier equipment. The sun shone as if behind a blanket. I saw more charred mounds, one with a fresh Turkish flag planted on top. Behind them, taller hills were balding, revealing the dusty carpet of their slopes, newly recovered from wildfires that ate through the region as far back as 50 years ago. A month ago, I was told, you couldn’t see the road below you through the forest cover. Now, you saw the sea.

We were stationed in front of the Muğla Fire Department, where six more volunteers joined our ranks. One of them asked about my article and how I viewed the disaster response.

“It’s all political,” he told me before I could answer. He is one of 600 unemployed pilots in Turkey, he said, and knows that there is no lack of firefighter planes. (These planes are also used in counterterror operations to quench fires thought to be ignited by Kurdish insurgents).

Until 2019, the Turkish Aeronautical Association (THK), a commercial association, rented out six planes to the Forestry Ministry before every wildfire season. Then, to cut costs, the ministry halved the planes it took and raised the minimum amount of water a plane could carry to five tons, disqualifying THK as a government supplier. This season, the ministry is renting three Russian planes of 12-ton capacity, which are less agile because of the extra weight and were grounded in the first few days, awaiting repairs.

Erdoğan at first turned down international aid, leaving the bulk of the firefighting to 51 helicopters, which carry three tons each. After pressure mounted, Turkey accepted planes from Spain, Croatia, Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran.

Our first call was in Menteşe, a partly agricultural district of about 120,000 people. The wildfires there had peaked at 5 a.m. Firefighters from the Istanbul Fire Department were trying to conserve their energy before sunset, when the airborne support, without night vision, would be out of service. If the winds blew our way, we would have to help evacuate the town, a move too dramatic to start prematurely. Residents idled in the street, asking for updates. They were used to wildfires; the real pity, one said, was for the animals.

This was the last time that the winds worked in our favor. The main event here was photo ops with the firefighters, the mayor, a deputy and other volunteers who became our friends. I was glad to see the firefighters, who barely slept three hours a night, lounge and laugh with us. Hüseyin would later tell me that someone had complained to police that one of them was not working. His house in Istanbul was raided the next day.

That night, I slept with a mask on and woke up with flakes of ash on my face. My slumber was light, and I was awake for the morning call to prayer. The muezzin pleaded for the fires to end soon and spare lives.

I saw fewer fires in Menteşe than in Marmaris, partly because the horizon was flat, but the ones I did see were monstrous. Their size, though, was not what made them dangerous; it was the roads in Menteşe, which were tight and bending and clogged with unnecessary cars. Fires can grow and shapeshift within seconds, so we had to enter and exit with discipline. The three times we had to turn back, we were slowed by stragglers.

The worst of the three fires hit us as we were leaving Menteşe to meet with the mayor of a beach town further south. Nilüfer got a call from the pilot, who had left us and was now at one of the biggest active fires in the country. It wasn’t far, so we made the detour into the mountains. The roads were narrower and had steep edges and sharp turns. As I peered at solid black sections of the valley, the war metaphor again came to mind. At least here, the front lines were clear, etched out by a glowing border that separated the side of the living from the dead.

Unlike the other fires we saw, the one in Köyceğiz made live television — but the information we got as a response team was piecemeal. Its scope started to become clear when we crossed a line of pickup trucks coming from the opposite direction, transporting blanketed cargo, then cows. I saw more planes and cars belonging to pro-government groups than in the previous days combined. Erdoğan had just outlawed help from all non-accredited groups, but I also saw more civilians heading to the site whose role was unclear. “They look like they’re hunting witches,” giggled one of the team leaders, pointing at four men on two motorcycles, one shirtless, one in a cowboy hat, holding rakes and shovels.

He came back less than a minute later, haunted, with one sentence: ‘This one’s beyond us.’

The same team leader got off the bus with the organizers to evaluate the situation. He came back less than a minute later, haunted, with one sentence: “This one’s beyond us.” There was ambiguity in his words, which might be why no one pressed for details. I would learn later that two of the three fire trucks on site had broken down, there were flames closing in on us, and the only place that was ready for cooling was way down in the valley. Both man and nature were untouchable.

Our driver squeezed in between cars for a U-turn and turned off the lights. It was silent except for the coughing of one person, either from carbon monoxide poisoning or from COVID-19. My buddy scrolled through his Instagram in the seat behind me. He landed on the page of the Forestry Ministry, and then of AFAD, a thread of cleanly cut videos of men battling fire. “Propaganda,” he said.

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