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Turkey wildfires: Hundreds evacuated by sea as power plant blaze doused

Officials say there were no explosions at the Kemerkoy power plant in Mugla province and no chemicals were spread
Villagers are evacuated by Turkish coastguards in Mila after a deadly wildfire engulfed the outer edges of the 35-year-old Kemerkoy thermal power plant (AFP)

Flames that threatened a coal-fired power station in Turkey's fire-ravaged southwest have been extinguished, local authorities said on Thursday, after hundreds of workers and residents were evacuated overnight by ship when a blaze broke out in the plant's grounds.

Local villagers, many clutching small bags of belongings grabbed from their abandoned houses as the evacuation call sounded, began piling onto coastguard speedboats at the nearby port of Oren.

The western coastal province of Mugla, where the Kemerkoy power plant is located, is one of the worst hit regions.

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The municipality said 55,000 hectares have been burnt - more than twice the area burnt across the whole of Turkey last year - and 36,000 people have had been evacuated.

Twelve fires were still burning in the region on Thursday, but the fires which breached the plant's perimeter on Wednesday evening had been extinguished without damaging the facility's main units, authorities said.

"The fire in the thermal power plant yard has been put out. There were no explosions in the plant and no chemicals were spread," Mugla municipality said in a statement.

Erdogan's communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said earlier that the blaze had not damaged the main units of the Kemerkoy power plant.

Plumes of smoke rose above the trees and helicopters poured water over areas near the plant, Reuters reported.

Local officials said hydrogen tanks used to cool the station had been emptied and filled with water as a precaution.

'We grabbed our bags in a panic'

Turkish news reports said most of the coal had been moved from the plant to a storage site 5km away as a precaution when the blaze first approached the region at the start of the week.

Sadik Akin, a 28-year-old excavator driver, spent the night in the open after he saw flames approaching the coal-fired facility, where he works and lives, and fled with others.

"When we were going back to camp, we saw the fire was nearing the power plant. So we grabbed our bags in a panic and returned," Akin told Reuters.

More than 150 fires have broken out in the last nine days across southwestern Turkey, fanned by high temperatures and strong, dry winds that have also spread wildfires in other Mediterranean countries.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described as the worst Turkey has suffered, devastating tens of thousands of hectares of forest and forcing thousands of Turks and tourists to flee.

Eight people have died since the fires first broke out last week and environmentalists had warned of fresh danger as the flames encroached on the power plant.

'No room for politics'

The strength and scale of the fires has exposed Erdogan to days of criticism for what some observers say has been a sluggish response to the crisis. The Turkish president had just begun a live television interview about the fires as news of the plant's evacuation broke.

He acknowledged that the efforts of firefighters to save the station were failing in the face of "tremendous wind" fanning the flames. But he also lashed out at opposition leaders for trying to score political points by questioning his government's readiness and response. 

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"When fires break out in America or Russia, [the opposition] stands by the government," said Erdogan. "Like elsewhere in the world, there has been a big increase in the forest fires in our country. There should be no room for politics here."

The Turkish government appears to have been caught off guard by the scale and ferocity of the flames. Its media watchdog on Tuesday warned broadcasters that they might be fined if they continue showing live footage of the blazes or air images of screaming people running for their lives.

Most rolling news channels dropped their coverage of the unfolding disaster until the fire reached the power plant, AFP reported.

Temperature record broken

Erdogan himself has been subjected to days of ridicule on social media after he tossed bags of tea to crowds of people while touring one of the affected regions under heavy police escort. 

The opposition has also accused the president of being too slow to accept offers of foreign assistance - including from regional rival Greece - and for having failed to properly maintain firefighting planes.

Erdogan's office blamed the very first blazes near Antalya on arsonists, which pro-government media linked to banned Kurdish militants waging a decades-long insurgency against the state.

But more and more public officials now link them to an extreme heatwave that has dried up reservoirs and created tinderbox conditions across much of Turkey's south.

Experts have warned that climate change in countries such as Turkey increases both the frequency and intensity of wildfires. 

The government of neighbouring Greece has directly linked devastating fires there, which covered the capital Athens in smoke on Wednesday, to global warming.

Authorities ordered evacuations on an island near the Greek capital and battled a blaze near the site of the ancient Olympic Games in the western Peloponnese as wildfires raged for a third day. 

Turkish Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said temperatures in the Aegean city of Marmaris had reached an all-time record of 45.5 degrees Celsius this week.

"We are fighting a very serious war," the minister told reporters. "I urge everyone to be patient."

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