Turkish rescuers on Thursday began evacuating hundreds of villagers after the outer edges of a thermal power plant storing thousands of tons of coal were wrapped up.
An AFP team saw firefighters and police fleeing a 35-year-old Kemarkoi plant in the Aegean province of Mugla as bright orange flame balls tore through the surrounding hills.
Hundreds of local villagers – many small bags of goods snatched from their abandoned homes when evacuation calls were heard – began piled up on Coast Guard speedboats at the nearby port of Orion.
The regional authority said “all explosive chemicals” and other hazardous materials had been removed from the strategic site.
“But there is a risk that the fire could spread to thousands of tonnes of coal,” regional mayor Usman Groen told reporters.
The hydrogen tanks used to cool the station were emptied and filled with water as a precaution, local officials said.
As a precautionary measure, most of the coal was moved to a storage area five kilometers (three miles) from the plant when the fire first reached the area earlier in the week, Turkish news reports said.
More than 180 wildfires have engulfed much of the forest and killed eight people since it engulfed almost the entire coast of Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
The European Union’s satellite monitoring service said its “radial power” – a measure of the intensity of the fire – had “reached unprecedented values throughout the dataset, as of 2003”.
The power and scale of the fire has exposed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in days of criticism, with some observers saying he has had a slow response to the crisis.
Erdogan had just begun a live television interview about the fire when news of the plant evacuation surfaced.
He acknowledged that efforts by firefighters to save the station were failing despite “strong winds”.
But he also criticized opposition leaders for trying to gain political points by questioning the readiness and response of their governments.
Erdogan said that when a fire breaks out in the United States or Russia, (the opposition) stands with the government.
“Like other parts of the world, our country has seen a huge increase in forest fires. There should be no room for politics.”
The Turkish government seems to be wary of the scale and intensity of the flames.
Its media watchdog warned broadcasters on Tuesday that they could be fined if they continue to show live footage or aerial footage of people fleeing for their lives.
Most rolling news channels dropped their coverage of the fire until it reached the power plant.
Erdogan himself was ridiculed on social media for several days as he threw tea bags at a crowd as he visited one of the affected areas with a large contingent of police.
The opposition has also accused the powerful Turkish leader of being slow to accept foreign aid offers – including from regional rivals Greece – and failing to properly maintain firefighting aircraft.
Erdogan’s office blamed the first fire near Antalya on arsonists linked to pro-government media outlawed Kurdish militants who have been waging a decades-long insurgency against the state.
But more and more government officials are now linking them to the intense heat wave that has dried up the reserves and created a tender box situation in most parts of southern Turkey.
Experts warn that in countries like Turkey, climate change is increasing both the frequency and intensity of forest fires. The government of neighboring Greece has directly linked the devastating fire there, which engulfed the capital Athens in smoke on Wednesday, from global warming.
“We are fighting a very serious war,” the minister told reporters. “I urge everyone to be patient.”
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