Locals evacuated as major forest fire hits Swiss mountain valley
The residents of Oberried, Canton Valais have been told to evacuate after a massive forest fire took hold on the side of a nearby mountain at 5pm on July 17. The Swiss fire brigade and other branches of emergency services have been trying to contain and extinguish the blaze, with authorities warning that more areas of the country are at risk of forest fires in the coming days.
Forest fire wreaks havoc in Swiss canton of Valais
According to reporters on the ground, the blaze started on a hillside in the Valais municipality of Bitsch shortly before 5pm on July 17. The fire spread rapidly across the mountain, covering the entire valley in smoke.
With the blaze continuing to move, the police soon ordered the inhabitants of Oberried to evacuate. The evacuees are currently staying in the community centre in Ried-Mörel, with the Mayor of Bitsch, Edgar Kuonene, confirming that the families have been given something to eat and drink, and will be constantly informed about whether they are able to go home.
Air Zermatt and Swiss Army both on hand to extinguish the fire
In total, 205 people have been evacuated from the area and are now being housed or are staying with friends and relatives. "The most important thing now is that no one gets hurt," the mayor told 20 Minuten.
Due to the location of the fire, the blaze has to be extinguished using water carried by helicopters. The Swiss Army and Air Zermatt have both been put into action and have flown round-the-clock missions to help contain and put out the fire. In a statement issued on July 18, Air Zermatt said that stopping the fire's spread was a “top priority” and that the operation is likely to last several days.
Fire will take weeks to put out, says fire brigade
Luckily, thanks to a drop in the wind and the continued efforts of firefighters, the blaze appeared to subside at 9am on July 18. Operations manager Mario Schaller told reporters that the fire had spread far, enveloping 100 hectares of woodland in less than 24 hours. However, he said that the helicopters had been successful in protecting nearby houses and making sure that, at the time of writing at least, no one has been hurt.
Schaller confirmed that while they cannot say the situation is over, “individual sources of fire are [now] being fought." While the peak of the blaze may be over, he said the operation to extinguish the fire completely will take weeks, and they will need steep terrain specialists to go in and confirm that the fire is well and truly over. The cause of the fire is not yet known.
On July 19, the emergency services confirmed that some evacuees could return to their homes. While the fire is considered "stable", the fire brigade warned that the operation will likely take weeks to complete, and the blaze may flare up again if conditions change.
Forest fires threaten the rest of Switzerland
Speaking to reporters, Mayor Kuonen explained that the region is "suffering from a major drought”, which is why the fire could spread so quickly. It comes as many regions, such as Fribourg and Neuchâtel, have advised against people setting fires - it is now obligatory to use purpose-built fireplaces in both cantons. Both local authorities have warned that if conditions persist, a total fire ban will be put in place.
To see what rules and regulations apply to where you live, check out the Swiss Natural Hazards Portal.