As Turkey battles wildfires, experts warn that protecting the region's natural habitat is more important than taking quick actions that could be harmful in the long term.
A viral photo of a red pine cone covered in grey ash from the outside but revealing its inner colour after having cracked open from the heat is perhaps the perfect visual metaphor summarising the state of Turkey’s forests in the Mediterranean and Aegean.
The country’s once turquoise and green coasts with a thick cover of forests are now overwhelmed by these two colours, as wildfires wreaked havoc from July 28, spreading across various cities. The inferno is still raging in five cities and at 14 locations, but as per the Turkish officials, much of the fires have been brought under control.
Some other Mediterranean countries including Lebanon, Italy and Greece have also been affected by forest fires.
In Turkey, public attention to the crisis has been immense. While some fundraiser campaigns bring together basic necessities to help people affected by the fire, how to bring the burnt forests back to life has been the centre of a heated discussion.
Turkey’s environmental non-governmental organisation TEMA, in response, started a sapling planting campaign roughly translated as “we’re going to make the green flourish again.” Attracting enormous participation, the website's donation page had heavy traffic.
Meanwhile, some were quick to offer a solution for a quick recovery: start planting trees immediately, and instead of pine trees that dominate the region, plant different kinds of saplings.
Impatience amid burning forests intertwined with conspiracy theories led to many questions: Were the pine trees that easily set on fire once brought to Turkey with aims to destroy the country’s forests? Could we profit from planting trees instead of pines in the long term?
Experts, on the other hand, say the world’s past experiences with wildfires already offer an answer to these questions and a roadmap to follow.
Helping nature recover is simple and complex at the same time
Doganay Tolunay of Istanbul University-Cerrahpasa Faculty of Forestry says sometimes having no external intervention is what nature requires after a wildfire. When it comes to the Mediterranean ecosystem, which is found in just five regions worldwide, protecting the burnt areas will do it.
“Pine forests in the Aegean and Mediterranean region have developed an adaptation to the wildfires. A big part of red pines don't get affected by the wildfires and their seeds naturally fall into the ashes. Next spring then they grow out to be saplings,” Tolunay, who is also Tema’s Science Board member, told TRT World.
This was the case when wildfires burned much of Australia's South Coast between 20190-2020. Less than a year after the fires, plants were covered with epicormic growth, a natural response to damage or stress, while spouts on the ground started to show up in the grey forests. Scientists said a more permanent grassland could dominate the Greater Yellowstone Area that is dominated by lodgepole pine forests.
But there are other examples of how nature responds when it is not allowed to heal in the way it requires after a wildfire.
In 2008, when the biggest fire of Turkey broke out around Manavgat, 16,500-hectare forests became ashes. Tolunay remembers that the pine saplings that were collected from different parts of Turkey were planted in the area right after the fire. In the coming years, only the naturally grown pine saplings were found while the externally brought ones were nowhere in sight.
“The saplings need to be grown from the seeds taken from the close region -- not somewhere else. If you bring a sapling of the same tree but from a different region, it leads to foreign granules to natural forests. In the long term, this disturbs the nature of the ecosystem,” he says.
That’s why planting efforts of NGOs, in fact, can’t take place in the burnt areas in the recent fires in Turkey but be adapted into areas that need greening, he explains. Meanwhile, the officials may just need to transport seeds to the areas that don't have enough and to help create a new red pine forest in case.
In Turkey, the areas that are burnt are under protection and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is responsible for reforesting these areas per the constitution. They can't be used for other purposes. Experts agree that what people strive to help the forests to re-grow is keeping tabs on if this process is continued as it should be.
Meanwhile, to bring other seeds or plant other saplings is out of the question.
Scientists say pines, called Turkish pines in the English language, are completely native to Turkey and replacing them with other species isn’t a decision that can be taken with no consideration of the future of the climate as well as their harmony with a climate that is expected to be increasingly warmer. Fruit trees may not burn as much, but they also wouldn’t grow without watering and amid a lack of rains.
Different circumstances require different solutions
In different climate conditions, however, nature may need some external support for post-fire recovery. Oak, beech, and linden trees that are commonly spotted in Turkey’s Black Sea region, for example, won’t come back to life naturally after a wildfire. That's why saplings need to be planted in these areas.
Due to the oceanic climate, the region is wet even in summer and doesn’t see wildfires in the extent of the Mediterranean. A major study this year found that the world is at risk of hitting the temperature limit soon and ever raising temperatures will have an impact even in ecosystems that are traditionally not prone to wildfires.
To tackle the forests’ recovery process well and prevent the wildfires from becoming bigger each day, we need to adapt ourselves to climate change conditions, Ismail Bekar, an ecologist working on fire ecology told TRT World.
“Global warming is a factor why the wildfires are becoming bigger each day. The heat is increasing and the heat waves cause drought and rain patterns are changing,” he said.
Heatwaves don't start fires, but they prepare conditions for more fires to emerge, Bekar explained.
“Fires that are caused by people at the rate of around 90 per cent, and the heatwaves increase the possibility of any sparks turning into a fire and spreading further,” he said.
In 2020, the fires in the United States, California, 4 million acres burned by wildfires. Bekar says, having the Mediterranean ecosystem, the western state is also capable of renewing itself. But it’s only possible with the protection of these areas, as well as protecting the ecosystem by preventing new ones from emerging.
Instead, the state is battling with wildfires once again as temperatures are soaring. The areas once burned are less likely to catch fire, but re-burns have been increasing due to heatwaves, threatening erosion of entire forests. Fires contribute to increasing global emissions that in turn contribute to a fire-loving environment, perpetuating a cycle.
For the time being, Bekar says, we have to get prepared for future wildfires.