Villagers become unsung heroes of Turkey's wildfires

Ikizce (Turkey) (AFP) –


They grabbed their rakes, shovels and axes, donned high-vis helmets and went off into the mountains, helping exhausted firefighters battling Turkey's deadly blazes pick their way through unfamiliar terrain.

Residents of the rolling hills and pine forests hugging the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts have turned into the unsung heroes of Turkey's battle against its deadliest and most destructive wildfires in generations.

"You see that little fire over there? We will intervene and put it out right away," Mehmet Yesimoglu, a 50-year-old shopkeeper, said proudly while pointing to a worrying patch of blood-orange flames.

"If we don't, then it will grow and then we will need helicopters or planes."

Turks have been watching in horror as huge pockets of some of the country's most fertile land goes up in flames, turning to ash fields and valleys which farmers rely on for subsistence.

At least eight people have died and dozens of villages have been evacuated. Few know what -- if anything -- they will be able to return to when the fires finally subside.

But instead of feeling helpless, many joined the frontlines.

"This is not something we knew how to do before," Tanzer Bulut, 30, said as he walked toward the smoke blotting out the horizon.

"All we do is try to be logical. You look where the flames are going and try to get ahead of them. We do what we can even though we are not professionals."

- 'I trust his knowledge' -

Some of the locals give the firefighters directions, showing the best way to thread their way through winding roads that are often blanketed in smoke in the daytime and lit up by threatening, red flames at night.

One man stood on the side of the road, shining a clear path with the flashlight in his helmet, waving fire engines through with a stick.

Food and water donations have been pouring in from across the country to the point that one local official pleaded for Turks to stop -- there was simply no place to store it all.

Others are helping the firefighters pull long, thick heavy hoses on their shoulders to the edges of the flames.

"To get a bulldozer through, I was able to show a clear path to the top without a problem, even though it's steep," said Hayati Zorlu, 55, a local village head in the Mugla province, which is home to popular Aegean resorts.

A youth receives assistance as firemen and local volunteers fight to extinguish a wildfire in Oren in Turkey
A youth receives assistance as firemen and local volunteers fight to extinguish a wildfire in Oren in Turkey SERDAR GURBUZ AFP

"Because I know the terrain and I am the only one here. There are no other officials except for the village chief."

Hakan Karabulut, who heads an Istanbul fire brigade dispatched to the disaster zone, ran out of fingers on his hand listing all the ways locals have been able to help.

"First of all, they are our guides. Second, they show where to refuel with water. Third, they tell us where the fires are. Fourth, they provide us with logistical support, whether it's food or drink. And fifth, they help us carry the fire hoses."

But there was more, the fire chief said.

"We have youngsters here who are hunters and they know the territory very well. If I find him and I trust his knowledge, I don't let him go."