By Mikhail Veresov
Summer is the most difficult season for Turkish forest-rescuers. There’s so much sun and little rain, causing overheated sand to ignite spontaneously, causing forest fires. It’s no surprise that Turkey invited the Belarusian Emergency Ministry to tackle fires for the third season in a row this year. In late April, a Mi-8 helicopter from the Emergency Ministry flew its seven crew members to Istanbul before being relocated to the Dardanelles area. Since then, the Belarusians have been working until 9pm (local time) each evening, with a 12 minute window response time in case of alarm.
Fortunately, May was unexpectedly calm, with few serious fires. One occurred in the area of Canakkale, where a bus driver carrying 45 tourists lost control and crashed. The vehicle burst into flame and, although the people escaped safely, the fire soon spread to the neighbouring forest, requiring the Mi-8 to respond rapidly. It soon flooded the forest area and the burning vehicle, placing the situation under control.
“In early June, the true Turkish summer began: +30 Celsius degrees at night and +40 Celsius degrees in the daytime,” notes Vitaly Baranov, the crew’s commander. “We were relocated to the south-east of Western Anatolia, to the city of Denizli. The irony is that it translates as ‘maritime’, despite the sea being 170km away. It has lots of pine, fir and cedar groves, which are carefully cherished by the Turkish as natural treasures. From mid-June, the fires began. The forestry calls us with co-ordinates when a fire breaks out and we usually deliver 15-20 foresters with petrol-driven power saws, hacks and rakes to the spot. If necessary, we’re directed as to where we should shower our three tonnes of water. People revere their forests and mountain groves here in Turkey, viewing them alongside Pamukkale and Troy in importance.”
The schedule of our Belarusian rescuers is tough, as they start work at 6am and finish after 9pm. The four pilots and three technician engineers have to remain ‘combat-ready’, able to be in the air within 720 seconds. Demerit points are given for delay.
Something unimaginable took place in Denizli from June 21st-26th, with fires appearing one after another. The helicopter would receive the co-ordinates of a new ‘hot spot’ immediately on returning from its previous mission. The pilots were spending 5-6 hours a day extinguishing fires — with those in Izmir’s suburbs proving especially challenging, as power lines crossed the forested area. The rescuers had to perform aerobatic manoeuvres by throwing water from the side.
“It isn’t the fires that are the most difficult thing, since the Turkish won’t allow them to flare up seriously. The most complex aspect is the terrain, as there are so many mountains and canyons; height above sea level varies from 0.5 to 2km. Winds are also unpredictable, so only experienced pilots can cope,” explains Mr. Baranov. “Water is a separate issue. As I’ve already said, we’re rather far away from the sea, so must use small mountain glacial lakes to fill our reservoir, or the artificial fire-fighting water reservoirs which exist (10 to 15m in diameter). These can be easily distinguished, being surrounded by barbed wire and with the water dyed red or dark blue to deter locals from using it.”
The Belarusian crew are already used to 45 Celsius degree heat in the cabin. They keep mineral water on ice to cool them down and, by the end of each flight, will have drunk 10-12 litres to avoid dehydration. These professionals are ready to endure hardship in pursuit of their goal and keep themselves fit, ready for whatever is thrown at them.