MUGLA, Turkey (AP) — Actor Tevfik Erman Kutlu was on a break from filming in Istanbul when wildfires that devastated swaths of southern Turkey first erupted.
Desperate to play a part in efforts to put out the fires, he and five friends drove 725 kilometers (450 miles) to the coastal resort of Marmaris to lend a helping hand to combat the blazes.
Once there, the friends formed a human chain helping to carry fire extinguishers, unfolded and rushed a firetruck’s hose to firefighters and even tackled a hillside fire themselves, dousing pressurized water on flames under the guidance of fire crews.
“Instead of sitting at home and watching videos of the fires on social media, I wanted to be of use,” the 41-year-old film and television actor currently starring in a TV drama series about the mafia underworld, told The Associated Press.
They are among the hundreds of volunteers who have joined efforts to contain blazes that have swept through forests in Turkey’s southern and southwestern coasts, fueled by a summer heatwave, low humidity and strong winds. The fires, described as Turkey’s worst in living memory, have so far killed eight people, including a volunteer who was carrying drinking water and other refreshments to firefighters in Marmaris.
The fires have also killed countless animals, destroyed acres of forests near the country’s favorite tourist destinations, and forced thousands of evacuations. Farmlands have also been ravaged, leaving many in the region concerned about their livelihood.
In coastal Mugla province, where the tourist destinations of Bodrum and Marmaris are located, fires continued to burn in three areas on Friday, officials said. Blazes in Marmaris were largely contained by Friday, according to its mayor. Fires raging in two districts of Antalya province, another tourism spot, were also brought under control.
Strong winds drove one of the fires toward the compound of the coal-fueled Kemerkoy power plant near the town of Milas, in Mugla province late on Wednesday, forcing nearby residents to flee in navy vessels and cars. It was contained on Thursday after raging for some 11 hours and officials said its main units were not damaged.
In Turgut, the visibly tired volunteers were resting after assisting the crews, some lying on the ground, others helping each other with eye-drops or nursing cuts and grazes. Elsewhere other volunteers, including veterinarians, have helped injured farm or wild animals.
“At first we were 15 volunteers,” said Nuriye Caglar, a 59-year-old pensioner from Marmaris. “I don’t know how many we are now. Forty or 50?”
Mehmet Kara, a 36-year-old tourism agent from Istanbul said: “There was an unbelievable effort, sacrifice up there by our friends. We fought the fires all together, we cooperated.”
“We had people who were burned, who were poisoned. We saw all of this as fires raged and we did what we had to do. Now, the support teams have arrived and they’re doing what’s necessary. As you can see, our friends are fighting tooth and nail,” said Kara, who drove with Kutlu from Istanbul.
On Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said authorities would no longer allow people other than those authorized to fight blazes to approach the fires.
“God forbid, in addition to these (fires) we may have to deal with injuries or similar things. We do not want to experience that,” Erdogan said.
It’s not unusual for people in Turkey to mobilize during times of crisis, such as earthquakes. Many jump into cars to head to the afflicted regions, taking food, water, clothing or blankets.
Turkey’s most famous search-and-rescue team, AKUT, is made up of trained volunteers. The group was founded in the 1990s by mountaineers who were frustrated by a failed mountain rescue operation by the authorities.
Some volunteers joined the firefighting efforts out of frustration at the government’s apparent inadequate response and unpreparedness for large-scale wildfires. Erdogan admitted last week that Turkey’s firefighting planes were grounded and planes flew in from Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Croatia and Spain to assist the country.
But Kutlu, best known for his role in the popular Turkish drama series “Valley of the Wolves,” said he was motivated by his “devotion to the country.” He insisted this was not the time for recriminations.
“Right now there’s a fire. Our focus, our only focus, is stopping that fire,” Kutlu said. “We’ll then ask for someone to be accountable. Who’s to blame, who’s not? This is not the time to be fighting over that.”
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Ayse Wieting in Istanbul contributed.