By Mert Ozkan and Ezgi Erkoyun
MILAS, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey is grappling with the worst forest fires in its history, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday as the fires spread to a power plant in the southwest of the country after burnt down stretches of coastal forest.
Fanned by high temperatures and a strong, dry wind, the fires have forced thousands of Turks and foreign tourists to flee their homes and hotels near the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Eight people have died in the flames since last week.
Planes and dozens of helicopters joined dozens of emergency ground crews to fight the fires, but Erdogan’s government was criticized for the scale and speed of the response.
More than a week after the start of the first fires, 16 were still burning on Wednesday, the forestry minister said.
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“The fires that have happened this year have never happened in our history,” Erdogan told reporters in a television interview. “This is the most important (epidemic).”
In the past two weeks, fires in Turkey have burned more than three times the area affected in an average year, a European fire agency said. Neighboring countries have also battled fires fueled by heat waves and high winds.
A fire has spread to a coal-fired power station east of Bodrum in southwest Turkey after it has burned nearby since Tuesday, the local mayor said.
“Flames entered the thermal power plant,” said Muhammet Tokat, mayor of the city of Milas, adding that the plant was being evacuated.
Earlier, environmentalists said they were concerned about the impact if the fire spread to the plant’s coal storage unit.
“Harmful gases could spread through the atmosphere if coal burns uncontrollably,” activist Deniz Gumusel said.
The plant’s flammable material tanks were emptied as a precaution, a reporter from the Demiroren news agency said, and ditches were dug as a firebreak.
Local officials, many of whom belong to the Republican People’s Party (CHP), complained about the slowness or inadequacy of the government’s response.
Firefighting planes from Spain and Croatia joined teams from Russia, Iran, Ukraine and Azerbaijan this week to fight the fires, after Turkey asked for European support.
Opposition parties criticized Erdogan and his government for depleting firefighting resources over the years. Thousands of people also took to social media to ask Erdogan to step down, while others criticized the lack of resources and what they called inadequate preparations.
The government defended its response to the wildfires, saying its efforts were planned and coordinated.
(Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen; Editing by Dominic Evans, Janet Lawrence and David Gregorio)
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