Turkish rescuers on August 5 began evacuating hundreds of villagers by sea after a deadly wildfire engulfed the outer edges of a thermal power plant storing thousands of tonnes of coal.
An AFP team saw firefighters and police fleeing the 35-year-old Kemerkoy plant in the Aegean province of Mugla as bright balls of orange flame tore through the surrounding hills.
Hundreds of local villages – many clutching small bags of belongings grabbed from their abandoned houses as the evacuation call sounded – began piling onto coastguard speedboats at the nearby port of Oren.
The regional authority said “all explosive chemicals” and other hazardous material had been removed from the strategic site.
“But there’s a risk that the fire could spread to the thousands of tonnes of coal inside,” regional mayor Osman Gurun told reporters.
Local officials said hydrogen tanks used to cool the station had been emptied and filled with water as a precaution.
Turkish news reports said most of the coal had been moved from the plant to a storage site 5km away as a precaution when the blaze first approached the region at the start of the week.
More than 180 wildfires have scorched huge swathes of forest and killed eight people since breaking out along almost the entire perimeter of Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
The EU’s satellite monitoring service said their “radiative power” – a measure of the fires’ intensity – “has reached unprecedented values in the entire dataset, which goes back to 2003”.
The fires’ strength and scale have exposed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to days of criticism for what some observers say has been his sluggish response to the crisis.
Erdogan had just begun a live television interview about the fires as news broke about the evacuation of the plant.
He acknowledged that the efforts of firefighters to save the station were failing in the face of “tremendous wind” fanning the flames.
The Turkish government appears to have been caught off guard by the scale and ferocity of the flames.
Its media watchdog on August 3 warned broadcasters that they might be fined if they continue showing live footage of the blazes or air images of screaming people running for their lives.
Most rolling news channels dropped their coverage of the unfolding disaster until the fire reached the power plant.
The opposition has also accused the powerful Turkish leader of being too slow to accept offers of foreign assistance – including from regional rival Greece – and for having failed to properly maintain firefighting planes.
Erdogan’s office blamed the very first blazes near Antalya on arsonists, which pro-government media linked to banned Kurdish militants waging a decades-long insurgency against the state.
But more and more public officials now link them to an extreme heatwave that has dried up reservoirs and created tinderbox conditions across much of Turkey’s south.
Experts have warned that climate change in countries such as Turkey increases both the frequency and intensity of wildfires. The government of neighbouring Greece has directly linked devastating fires there, which covered the capital Athens in smoke on August 4, to global warming.
Turkey’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Bekir Pakdemirli said temperatures in the Aegean city of Marmaris had reached an all-time record of 45.5 degrees Celsius this week.
“We are fighting a very serious war,” the minister told reporters. “I urge everyone to be patient.”