Firefighters fought on Saturday to bring under control a major forest fire that has devastated some 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) of woodland in Turkey's tourism heartland, the forestry minister said.
More than a dozen aircraft dropped loads of water to douse the flames amid a thick pall of smoke hanging over the Mediterranean hillsides in what one official described as the worst fire Antalya province had ever faced.
Two people were missing and some 60 houses were destroyed in the blaze, which also threatened historical sites, including the ancient Greek amphitheatre in Aspendos, 37 km (23 miles) from the resort of Side on the shores of the Mediterranean.
"The fire is to a large extent being brought under control," Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroglu told reporters in a televised statement after surveying the affected area by helicopter.
Officials believe the blaze was sparked by a power line fault but investigations were continuing, the minister said, pledging aid to those affected by the fire.
He said another 15 forest fires had been brought under control across Turkey amid hot weather and a lack of rain which has left its extensive woodland vulnerable.
The Antalya fire, in its third day, was continuing in three areas and was expected to be fully under control by the evening as heavy winds slowed sharply.
Some 1,300 people were taking part in the fire-fighting operations, state-run Anatolian news agency reported.
Forestry officials earlier said that the fire, which started on Thursday, was threatening some 10,000 hectares of woodland.
"I have dealt my whole life with fires but I have never seen a sight like this...," said Mustafa Kurtulmuslu, deputy general manager of Turkey's forestry directorate. "I can ... say that we are experiencing a catastrophe."
The fire reportedly has not been contained due to strong winds.
Antalya Regional Forestry Directorate spokesman Aydoğan Türedi said the fire is the biggest and most destructive Antalya has ever seen and that they can only be thankful that no deaths have occurred. "A vast area is under a haze of heavy smoke. It is estimated that the fire may burn 4,000 hectares of land; yet, it would not be right to say how many hectares have been consumed by the fire, since intense smoke is preventing us from seeing the situation on the ground. Helicopters are operating somewhat in the dark when dumping water.
We announced that those in area villages should evacuate their homes," he said.
Antalya Deputy Governor Hasan Özhan said efforts to combat the fire are being hindered by strong winds. "Meteorology officials forecast that the winds will calm down in the afternoon, and we will be more effective in fighting the fire if that happens," he noted. He stated that they do not need any more firefighting equipment and that they also have enough firefighting teams, which came from many provinces and districts.
Deputy Forestry General Director Mustafa Kurtulmu?lu stated that they have had difficulty in getting the fire under control since there are no roads to some of the places affected by the fire. Although the villages were ordered to be evacuated, some villagers do not want to leave their homes, Kurtulmu?lu said. Stating that the fire is the biggest one Antalya has ever witnessed, Kurtulmu?lu noted that the winds causing the fire to spread are forecast to continue for the next four days, according to meteorology officials.
Furthermore, officials from the Antalya Meteorology Directorate said temperatures in the area will go up to 40 degrees Celsius, while humidity is expected to remain at only 16 percent and wind velocity will reach up to 30 kilometers.
The fire spread to neighboring villages due to heavy winds and low humidity. Five villages, including Karataş and Akbağ in Antalya's Serik district, were evacuated while more than 40 houses were destroyed. No fatalities were reported as of yesterday.
The owners of the destroyed homes claimed that firefighting teams fled the fire and told them that all the houses in their quarter (Karataş) were burned down. Villagers wept when they returned to the area to see their damaged or destroyed houses. Some villagers who did not evacuate took their furniture outside and spent the night outdoors in case the fire approached the area again. Local hospitals admitted some villagers who were brought in by relatives for smoke inhalation.
No risk for tourist destinations
Tourist destinations in Antalya province, which is home to some of the richest remains of Greek civilization in Turkey, are reportedly not threatened by the fire. The blaze came within four kilometers of the ancient Greek amphitheater at Aspendos, which is not considered at risk due to the lack of forest surrounding it.
Last Mod: 03 Ağustos 2008, 14:16
Türedi said: "The starting point of the fire was near a river which tourists use for rafting, and flames were approaching an ancient Greek amphitheater in Aspendos, 37 kilometers [23 miles] from the Mediterranean resort of Side. The fires are not threatening tourist areas, but they are close."