Villagers Become Unsung Heroes of Turkey’s Forest Fires

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They grabbed their rakes, shovels and axes, donned high-visibility helmets and set off for the mountains, helping exhausted firefighters grappling with Turkey’s deadly fires force their way through uncharted terrain.

The inhabitants of the rolling hills and pine forests that line the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts have become the unsung heroes of Turkey’s battle against its deadliest and most destructive wildfires in generations.

“See that little fire over there? We step in and put it out right away,” Mehmet Yesimoglu, a 50-year-old trader, said proudly, pointing to an ominous blotch of blood orange flames.

“If we don’t, then it will grow up and then we will need helicopters or airplanes.”

The Turks have watched with horror as huge pockets of some of the country’s most fertile land ignite, turning into fields of ash and valleys that farmers depend on for their livelihoods.

At least eight people died and dozens of villages were evacuated. Few people know what, if anything, they can return to when the fires finally die down.

But instead of feeling helpless, many have joined the front line.

“It’s not something we knew how to do before,” said Tanzer Bulut, 30, as he walked towards the smoke that obscured the horizon.

“All we do is try to be logical. You watch where the flames are going and try to beat them. We are doing what we can even though we are not professionals.”

– ‘I trust his knowledge’ –

Some locals give instructions to firefighters, showing the best way to fight their way through winding roads that are often blanketed in smoke by day and lit by ominous red flames at night.

A man stood by the side of the road, making a clear path with the flashlight in his helmet, pushing fire trucks past with a stick.

Donations of food and water are pouring in from all over the country to the point that a local official begged the Turks to stop – there was simply no room to store everything.

Others help firefighters pull long, thick, heavy hoses over their shoulders to the edge of the flames.

“To get a bulldozer through, I was able to show a clear path to the top without a problem, even if it is steep,” said Hayati Zorlu, 55, a local village chief in Mugla province, which is home to popular seaside resorts of the Aegean Sea. .

“Because I know the land and I am the only one here. There are no other officials except the village chief.”

Hakan Karabulut, who heads an Istanbul fire brigade dispatched to the disaster area, ran out of fingers on his hand as he listed all the ways locals were able to help.

“First of all, they are our guides. Second, they show where to fill up with water. Third, they tell us where the fires are. Fourth, they provide us with logistical support, be it food or drink. And fifth, they help us carry the fire hoses.

But there was more, said the fire chief.

“We have young people here who are hunters and they know the land very well. If I find him and trust his knowledge, I won’t let him go.”

kad / zak / raz / mbx


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