With temperatures on the rise, the risk of fire in the region escalates, given that its forested areas are largely composed of black pine and, to a lesser extent, Turkish pine, both of which are known to catch fire easily.
“The fact that forestland in the western Black Sea region is made up of black pine to a large extent, together with Turkish pine, is an indicator that big forest fires may potentially take place in the region,” says Ömer Küçük from the department of forest engineering at Kastamonu University, speaking to Today's Zaman.
The risk is real, as evidenced by events in April and June, when two forest fires broke out in Karabük, scorching an area of about 600 hectares in total. The area destroyed by the fires is large, considering that Turkey's average forested land lost due to fire in recent years has decreased substantially, to as little as a couple of hectares.
The western Black Sea region is under threat, in addition to the usual at-risk areas around the Aegean and Mediterranean, due to elevated temperatures in the range of 35-38 degrees Celsius recorded during the summer season in recent years. The peak season for forest fires in Turkey is from July to the end of September.
Küçük is of the opinion that the General Directorate of Forestry has been doing a good job dealing with and working to prevent forest fires over the past few years. “Technology has been much developed, and artificial reservoirs have been created all over Turkey to be able to better fight forest fires,” he said. It is true that Turkey has achieved much in terms of combating forest fires and wishes to crown its success by climbing the ladder in the world rankings.
Noting that Turkey ranks highest among Mediterranean countries in terms of its success in fighting forest fires, Forestry and Waterworks Minister Veysel Eroğlu announced at a meeting last month, “We aim to be among the best 11 countries [in the world] by the year 2015, and rank among the top seven in the longer term.”
Although Turkey experiences, on average, around 2,000 forest fires a year, which destroy roughly 7,000 to 8,000 hectares of forestland, it has managed to increase its forested areas from about 20 million hectares in the early 2000s to 21.6 million hectares today, of which less than half, around 12 million hectares, are under the threat of forest fires.
Thanks to efforts at modernization over the last 20 years, the forestland being lost in fires has gradually decreased. “Years ago, per forest fire the forestland destroyed was around 20 hectares, but now the figure stands at a modest couple of hectares,” notes Mustafa Avcı, head of the department of forest engineering at Süleyman Demirel University in Isparta. Avcı also told Today's Zaman that Turkey has the best capabilities for fighting forest fires among the countries on the Mediterranean coast.
Another reason for the sharp decline in the volume of forestland destroyed is Turkey's ability to deploy firefighting helicopters within a maximum time frame of 20 minutes to any forest fire. Should the helicopters prove insufficient to stop the spread of the blaze, firefighting planes, sprinkler vehicles and hundreds of fire-fighting staff are available to combat the fire.
Eroğlu explains that Turkey has access to 49 firefighting planes and helicopters, some also useful for observation work. The majority of the aircraft are hired, but the Ministry of Forestry and Waterworks is planning to acquire two firefighting helicopters in the coming years. There are also 5,000 land teams, with a total of 11,000 trained personnel. Between 2009 and 2012, 500 people were newly trained as firefighting experts in Turkey.
Turkey has also made significant technological advances in the field. “In Ankara we have an operations center that looks like a space center,” Minister Eroğlu said. Sitting in his office at the ministry in Ankara, the minister can observe particular locations on giant screens, locate helicopters, planes and sprinkler vehicles, and calculate how long it would take for vehicles to reach affected areas.
In order to facilitate intervention in fires in the quickest possible time, forestland is surveyed round the clock by 776 fire towers, about 70 of which host the 150 cameras that transmit data to the Fire Operations Center in Ankara. In the case of a fire, this data is transmitted within 15 seconds. Turkey is the first country to employ such a system, for which the ministry received an e-Turkey prize in 2011, and in which the state of California is also interested. Turkey has also established a training center in Antalya equipped with the latest technology. The center is expected to be inaugurated in the fall.
At the beginning of 2008 Turkey kicked off a reforestation campaign, thanks to which 24 million hectares of land will have been reforested by the end of this year. Fire-resistant tree types are being planted. Konya in Central Anatolia and areas surrounding dams in the Southeast have already been heavily reforested.
Being in the Mediterranean region, Turkey is a high risk country in regard to forest fires, with areas of particular sensitivity in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Marmara regions; there are times during the summer months when firefighting crews are faced with more than 30 forest fires at one time. But Turkey has stepped up its efforts to fight against forest fires, following a major fire event, the biggest in the republic's history, in Antalya in 2008, in which nearly 17,000 hectares of forestland were lost. As of June 13 this year, 1,292 hectares of forestland had been lost due to fires in 359 locations, with 12 percent caused by lightning, 56 percent by negligence, 20 percent unknown causes and 11 percent willful acts.
In the event of a forest fire, authorities can be alerted by dialing 177.