The sky was orange, the mid-August wind was blowing across the sea, and a man wearing flip-flops was shouting, “Friends, don’t go further. The fire has reached the road. It is not safe anymore.”
On the road between Milas and Bodrum, two coastal towns in Turkey next to the Aegean sea, the winds locals call Deli Mehmet – Crazy Mehmet – were fanning giant flames. Ashes filled the air and the remnants of scorched pine trees were spread all over the area; the roaring flames drowned out the sound of the sea.
Four weeks after those frightful scenes, the roads – then full of fire engines and volunteers – have grown calm once again. Some wildlife has returned, along with seaside holidaymakers, and fresh green leaves visible on the fig trees regrowing from the ashes.
But the hills overlooking the Aegean Sea remain black and barren.
“There is no water here Papa, and the trees look sad,” said a girl visiting the beach with her parents. “When will they be green again?”
The huge wildfires Turkey experienced in late July and the first two weeks of August were deemed “the worst in the country’s history” by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey is still recovering from the disaster, which devastated parts of the local economy and which many fear will be repeated without concerted action on climate change.
The fires mostly affected Antalya’s Manavgat district and neighbouring Muğla province, covering the country’s southern regions. Flames tore through villages, claiming the lives of eight people and destroying wildlife habitats.
Soaring temperatures, low humidity and strong winds prolonged the fires, which prompted criticism of the Turkish government for a perceived lack of preparedness. Thousands of people, particularly in villages near the epicentre of the fires, were evacuated. According to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), more than 150,000 hectares of forest were burned over just two weeks.
Milas mayor Muhammet Tokat was one of the many local officials who spent days fighting fires.
“We went through hell,” Tokat said. “Our children and young people still suffer from the psychological after-effects of the fires. There are few houses burned in our district, but flames roasted the olive gardens and pine forests where the honey and money come from. As the parents lose their incomes, the younger generation gets more anxious about their future.”
The local economy in Milas mainly depends on agriculture, with mining, industrial production and tourism also key sectors. According to the head of the Milas chamber of agriculture, İsmail Atıcı, 10 per cent of the raw product for olive oil production in Turkey grows around Milas, and 10-15 per cent of the trees in the area were affected by the fires. More than 650 farmers registered to the chamber have reported losses, while Atici believes that the total number, including the unregistered ones, is around 1,200.
Milas’ olive oil was registered for an EU protected designation of origin at the end of 2020. This extra virgin oil, produced exclusively from the local Memecik type of olives is only the fifth Turkish product to receive a geographical designation from the EU.
Atici told Inside Turkey that the annual olive oil production of the district was usually between eight and ten tonnes, but that he expected it to drop to 6.5 tonnes in this year’s harvest.
“The olive groves affected by the fire can return to production in five years at best if the seasonal rains help,” he said. “We will need ten years in the worst case scenario. This means farmers will not be able to make an income from the burned olive groves for at least five years.”
Erdogan has declared the affected regions on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts a disaster area, and minister of agriculture and forestry Bekir Pakdemirli announced that new olive trees would be planted in those areas. Atici said that Agriculture Ministry officials seemed sympathetic to his recommendations that affected farmers should receive relief aid, but no concrete moves had yet happened.
“No one except the people who lost their homes received any relief payments,” said one villager in Milas, whose sentiments were shared by others Inside Turkey spoke to. “The ministry and municipality help with the pellet feed for animals. But besides that, we don’t know how much compensation we’ll receive or when.”
Tokat said that the municipality also made an initial settlement to purchase 10,000 olive saplings to distribute, while acknowledging that some farmers were considering quitting the business altogether because of the economic uncertainties.
Kemal Ezer, a 67-year-old resident of Turkevleri, one of the neighbourhoods in Milas affected by the flames, has lived here his whole life. However, after losing all his crops to the fire, Ezer has doubts about replanting his trees.
“I’ve never seen something like that,” he said. “There was another fire here, five to six years ago. The olive groves also burned then. At that time, I stubbornly replanted them. This time, I don’t think I have enough time to see them grow again. I’m too old for that.”
According to Atici, losses in olive fields will force locals to seek new employment opportunities.
“They will look for jobs in tourism, forestry, and industry,” he continued. “Without comprehensive aid from central government, more and more young people in the region will drift away from farms and fields and villages because the losses will make farming less profitable.”
Olives are not the only agricultural product in Turkey’s southeastern region affected by the fires. Marmaris and Milas, two neighbouring Muğla districts, produce most of the world’s pine honey.
Beekeepers move their hives between forests to find the Basra beetle, a scaly insect that lives on red pines beetle and whose secretions are key food for honey bees. During the fires this year, most of the hives were in central Anatolia, which prevented more significant damage and saved most of the insects and equipment. However, honey producers lost almost all the forests where their hives spend the winter.
Mustafa Kahraman, a 42 year-old beekeeper, was in Afyon, a city in the western part of Central Anatolia, during the wildfires.
Pointing to a bare slope between Marmaris and Datça, two Muğla districts well-known for their pine honey production,” he said, “This hill was the place where I was planning to put the hives this year, but it’s gone now.”
“I saved my bees, but without the trees, that doesn’t mean anything. We were already struggling with the effects of climate change, and the last fires made our lives even harder.”
The chairman of the Turkey Bee Farmers’ Association, Ziya Şahin, told a press conference in early August that 3.5 million bees – almost half Turkye’s total population – spent the winter in Muğla every year.
“After these fires, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that there is a significant risk to pine honey production,” he said. “It is not that we won’t have pine honey at breakfast anymore, but I don’t expect it to be amongst the products that we export in upcoming years.”
In order to provide new areas for the beekeepers, the ministry of agriculture and forestry announced that national parks, which previously banned bee farmers from placing their hives there, would temporarily open their doors to producers affected by the fires. Atici said that the government also planned to make advance payments to beekeepers based on their annual production in the last five years.
“Opening the national parks to bee farmers and making support payments are positive steps,” he said. “Things won’t be like what they used to be soon, but with the help from the government, the farmers in the region at least can try to rebuild their lives.”
The impact on wild animals has also been severe. For example, the habitat for wildcats in Marmaris was completely destroyed.
According to Yasin Ilemin, a wildlife expert from Muğla Sitki Kocman University, wildcats generally prefer more humid climates than southern Turkey. But the unique habitat provided by the pinus brutias, commonly known as the Turkish pine, enabled a group of nearly 70 to inhabit the area. Now those trees are gone.
Ilemin explained that the wildcats would find it particularly hard to adapt to life after the fire.
“Our guess is that about 60 of the wildcats survived the fires and relocated. Probably, 25 per cent of them will also lose their lives in this new habitat due to adaptation stress,” Ilemin said, adding that it was important to leave the burned areas untouched wherever possible.
Ilemin, along with other experts, theorised that with proper intervention and rehabilitation projects it will be possible to shorten the regeneration of forests to 20 years, rather than the expected 40.
“But [the volume of wildfires] is increasing, and the reason behind it is not a secret,” he continued. “Climate change causes sharp fluctuations in temperatures, and with the escalating drought, frequency and duration, the likelihood of wildfires goes up. And wildfires are releasing carbon, contributing to the climate crisis. It is a vicious circle and all countries in the world, especially the big ones, should act together to stop global warming. Otherwise, we will face more and more fires around the globe, and the losses in wildlife will increase.”
Many locals agree that dramatic, long-term action is needed on a global scale. Aykut Güney, who runs the Bohem Bahçe campsite with his wife, fears for the future.
Having moved to Milas one-and-a-half years ago to start the business, the couple’s plans were nearly derailed by the effect of the pandemic on Turkey’s entire tourism sector. Then the fires hit the 2021 high season.
“We evacuated our guests but refused to leave our property,” Güney said, recalling how they joined the volunteer effort to fight the fires and managed to save their business. Nonetheless, he believes that the danger is far from over.
“We came here to get away from city life …But without people and governments acting more responsibly about climate change, these fires will continue, and many more lives like ours will be affected,” Güney continued. “Without a concrete plan to save the world, there will be no place for any of us to run and hide.”