Why is Turkey on fire? Scientists say that humans are to blame

Whether indirectly through climate change, or directly through carelessness, experts say humans are at fault

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As Turkey struggled to contain forest fires over the past week, people asked how so many blazes could start at the same time.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said on Monday that all but seven of 132 fires over the past five days were extinguished. The flames claimed the lives of eight people.

Although news outlets focused on scenes in the mountains behind Turkey’s Mediterranean holiday resorts, fires have raged in 32 of 81 provinces, including south-eastern inland areas.

Speculation has focused on arson in some cases, with claims that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party was involved in setting fires.

Explosion at Turkey fireworks factory

Explosion at Turkey fireworks factory

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to give credence to such claims on Saturday, when he indicated the group could be behind “sabotage”, but there appears to be little supporting evidence for that assertion.

There has been one arrest in Milas, Mugla province linked to a fire, while another was blamed on two boys burning books on forest land in nearby Marmaris.

Strong winds, dry ground conditions and higher-than-average temperatures are a more mundane explanation for the outbreaks, scientists said.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to look for other causes,” said Umit Sahin, climate change co-ordinator at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Centre.

“Although if you’re asking ‘Is the perpetrator human?’ then the perpetrator is definitely human because the perpetrator of the climate crisis is human.”

“Research shows that more than 80 per cent of forest fires in Turkey are caused by human action," Mr Sahin said. "Incorrect zoning decisions, incorrect tourism policies, all of these are very important. Given all this, I think it’s a mistake to think of forest fires as something very unusual in this heat and drought.”

Countries around the Mediterranean regularly experience summer bushfires, but the number in Turkey this year has been greater than usual. On Monday, forecasters spoke of temperatures 5ºC to 8ºC above the seasonal average along the west and south coasts.

“In the winter and spring, there is a long drought and the vegetation dries up. Then comes a big heatwave in summer, and temperatures rise to 35º to 40ºor even higher,” Dr Sahin said.

“After reaching a certain point, fires break out at the same time and in the same region as if someone had ignited a spark. But this isn’t something that needs to be started deliberately. The only reason is suitable conditions created by the climate crisis.”

Firat Cukurcayir, president of Turkey’s Chamber of Meteorological Engineers, said the “blow-dryer effect” – warm, dry air rushing down from the mountains that lie behind Turkey’s coastline – was a significant contributing factor.

“Wind is always a negative criterion for forest fires, even under normal conditions,” he said.

Dr Cukurcayir agreed that climate change was “laying the groundwork for weather events” and creating perfect conditions for forest fires.

If you’re asking ‘Is the perpetrator human?’ then the perpetrator is definitely human because the perpetrator of the climate crisis is human
Umit Sahin, Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Centre

He also said that people were the “biggest factor” in forest fires, as discarded cigarette ends or broken glass could ignite dry vegetation.

Officials from Gundogmus in Antalya province said sparks from a high-voltage electricity cable had started a fire near the town.

Sukru Durmus, president of the Agriculture and Forests Trades’ Union, said electricity lines could be responsible for fires.

“As a result of power lines hanging due to the heat, it’s possible they swing with the wind, hitting something and causing sparks that turn into a fire,” he said.

“We’ve been through this before but no one’s talking about it because there would have to be a lot of compensation.”

Others pointed out that the fires only received attention because of the large number occurring at once.

“There were fires last week, two weeks and three weeks ago but we didn’t hear much about them because we were able to extinguish them quickly,” said Cagatay Tavsanoglu, an ecologist at Ankara’s Hacettepe University.

“But this week there are such meteorological conditions and, combined with the heatwave, these fires became very severe.”

Updated: November 01, 2021, 12:47 PM