Turkey should take lessons from deadly Greek wildfires
Turkey faces similar risks and while it is good at extinguishing forest fires it needs to focus more on preventive measures, according to Professor Doğanay Tolunay, from İstanbul University’s Forestry Faculty.
Q: Are there any lessons to be taken from the recent deadly fire in Greece?
A: The interaction between humans and the forests have increased in the course of the last decades. New settlements inside forests are on the rise whether in the form of constructing residences or opening lands for cultivation. The moment humans enter the forest, the risk of fire increases. With humans comes electricity, litter, etc.
The fire in Greece broke out in a holiday area where the interaction between humans and the forest was high. When there is such interaction you need to create awareness among locals on what to do to prevent fires as well as what to do when a fire breaks out. You need to have evacuation plans.
In Greece it seems there were several settlements inside the forest, people got trapped in traffic or could not find their ways in the fog. It shows us that there was no work to increase awareness against fires, nor any evacuation plans.
Only a few days later we had the fire in Mudanya (near the Aegean town of Bursa), which broke out near a residential settlement. This is a typical example of the human-forest interaction. People are fleeing big cities toward holiday places which are becoming more popular. This has increased, even further the risks in the Aegean as well as the Mediterranean region, where holiday resorts are concentrated.
The Calabrian pines in these regions have leaves with resin which are more flammable.
So we have similar conditions with that of Greece.
Q: Which means if Turkey did not experience a similar fire with such high loss of human life it does not mean it won’t happen.
A: Exactly. Turkey is very successful in extinguishing forest fires. One seventh of the General Directory of Forestry’s budget is earmarked for extinguishing forest fires.
When you include the cost of the personnel it amounts to 900 Turkish Liras, which is quiet high. There are observation towers; helicopters and vehicles are being rented between May and November. There is success but it comes with a high cost. In fact budget cuts were also cited among the reasons for the failure to end the fire.
But currently the challenge in Turkey as well is to interfere to multiple fires as several ones break in different locations at the same time.
Instead of measures to extinguish the fires after it break outs, we need to shift to measures to prevent fires from breaking.
We need to raise awareness among people on what to do to prevent fires as well as what to do once fires break out. We also need evacuation plans.
We have to drive conclusions from the fire in Greece and design disaster plans. We can’t say what happened to Greece won’t happen to us. We can’t say we can extinguish the fire anyway. Weather conditions are very important. If there are strong winds the fire can spread quickly; the Calabrian pine cones that can fly out with fire like hand grenades also contribute to the fast widening of the fire. The topography is important. There are forests where it is not easy to access. With extreme drought there are too many accumulations of litter and dead leaves. When all these combine, the fire can spread quicker than speed of intervention.
Q: What is the general picture in Turkey in terms of forest fires?
A: There are average 2,200-2,500 forest fires each year and in the span of 30 years, every year an average of 11,000-hectare forest area are burned. This is below European and Mediterranean average. Some 97 percent of fires are manmade, half of which are intentional, with the purpose of opening space for residential areas or agriculture fields. The other reason is neglect: Throwing a cigarette butt or the left overs of those going to picnic like broken glasses. But among the biggest reason of neglect is burning stubble.
So we need to train farmers and also conduct public campaigns to raise awareness among ordinary people.
Q: Why do you think the government is not that vigilant on raising awareness?
A: I guess it is a matter of prioritizing. I see a lot of public campaigns about health or traffic. Maybe because the fires in Turkey have not led to high human casualties that it has not risen up in the list of priorities.
Q: Are the penalties high enough to discourage the intentional fires?
A: Forest crimes, like burning or cutting trees, have always been excluded from amnesty. In a way it is identified as a terror crime. There are heavy penalties. That of course is valid if the perpetrators are identified and caught. But once there is a small unnoticed fire and you have constructed a building on that space, it is difficult to roll back. In 2012 a law was endorsed that put on sale all the lands that were (illegally) carved out from forest areas prior to 1980.
Q: That was in a way an amnesty
A: Correct. A similar practice took place ahead of the 24 June general elections.
Q: Construction amnesty?
A: That is actually called construction peace. What I am talking about is a separate amendment that was introduced in the changes that were made for the State Water Directorate. Certain lands in like Istanbul, İzmir, İzmit and Kütahya that were carved of forest areas where there were settlements were taken out from the definition of forest area and most probably they will be sold to those who will claim ownership. Some 1600 hectare of lands has been affected by this amendment. All of them are residential settlements. We should not open the way to such practices. If someone has illegally occupied an area he/she should know that this will be taken back.
Q: That means deterrence is being weakened.
A: There is a general view that ahead of all elections somehow there is an increase in fires.
Q: Have you observed a similar trend this year?
A: No because it is currently easier to detect if some people burn an area and try to illegally occupy it. Technological advances such as aerial photographs and satellite images have worked as good deterrence.
Q: And also whenever there is fire there is also immediate public pressure to reforest the area.
A: We have a clear article in our constitution that stipulates that burned forest areas will be turned into forest areas again. This is an obligation. If a forest area was burned and it was not turned into a forest area, this is a constitutional crime. And with very few exceptions this law has been well implemented.
But I want to draw attention to the issue of afforestation. Strong public reaction to the fires put pressure for speedy afforestation. Young trees are planted, but this is an artificial generation that limits the genetic diversity of the forest. The cones of Calabrian pines are wide open during the fire and spread out their seeds in the ashes. This causes a speedier and much healthier fertilization, which in turn does not harm the biodiversity. So even if you do nothing in the burnt area, you can see in a year’s time the start of a natural generation. So the public need to be careful on exerting the pressure. Instead of artificial forestation, the public should insist for natural generation and for the selection of the most suitable methods.