By Mert Ozkan and Ezgi Erkoyun
MILAS, Turkey (Reuters) -Turkey is battling the worst wildfires in its history, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday, as fires spread to a power station in the country's southwest after reducing swathes of coastal forest to ashes.
Fanned by high temperatures and a strong, dry wind, the fires have forced thousands of Turks and foreign tourists to flee homes and hotels near the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Eight people have died in the blazes since last week.
Planes and dozens of helicopters have joined scores of emergency crews on the ground to battle the fires, but Erdogan's government has faced criticism over the scale and speed of the response.
More than a week after the first fires broke out, 16 were still burning on Wednesday, the forestry minister said.
"The fires that happened this year never happened in our history," Erdogan told reporters in a televised interview. "This is the largest (outbreak)."
In the last two weeks, fires in Turkey have burnt more than three times the area affected in an average year, a European fire agency said. Neighbouring countries have also battled blazes fanned by heatwaves and strong winds.
A fire spread into a coal-fired power plant east of Bodrum in southwest Turkey after burning nearby since Tuesday, the local mayor said.
"Flames have entered the thermal power plant," said Muhammet Tokat, mayor of the town of Milas, adding that the plant was being evacuated.
Earlier, environmentalists said they were concerned about the impact if the fire spread to the plant's coal storage unit.
"Harmful gases could spread to the atmosphere if coal burns in an uncontrolled way," activist Deniz Gumusel said.
Tanks with flammable materials at the plant were emptied as a precaution, a reporter with Demiroren news agency said, and ditches had been dug as firebreaks.
Local officials, many from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), have complained that the government response has been slow or inadequate.
Firefighting planes from Spain and Croatia joined teams from Russia, Iran, Ukraine and Azerbaijan this week to battle blazes, after Turkey requested European support.
Opposition parties criticised Erdogan and his government for depleting firefighting resources over the years. Thousands also took to social media calling for Erdogan to step down, while others criticised the lack of resources and what they called inadequate preparations.
The government has defended its response to the wildfires, saying its efforts have been planned and coordinated.
(Addional reporting by Yesim Dikmen; Editing by Dominic Evans, Janet Lawrence and David Gregorio)