Swiss forest fire brought under control

Swiss forest fire brought under control

28 April 2011

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Switzerland — About 500 firefighters, army soldiers and police battling strong headwinds and dry conditions brought a forest fire in southern Switzerland under control Wednesday.

An unusually hot spring and drought conditions set the stage for the fire which was still burning Wednesday and destroyed about 100 hectares (247 acres) of forestland, police said.

It was sparked by a fire Tuesday afternoon at an auto repair shop on the outskirts of Visp that strong winds quickly spread to surrounding forestland in the Swiss canton (state) of Valais. The cause of the fire at the shop, which was completely destroyed, has not yet been determined.

Some 350 firefighters and 35 police, along with 120 soldiers, struggled to bring the forest fire into check overnight.

Authorities reopened the main road from Visp that leads for about 20 miles (32 kilometers) up the valley and to the popular ski and mountaineering area Zermatt and the famed Matterhorn.

Just under a third of Switzerland is forested, where recent bouts of summer heat and drought have damaged areas in the Jura mountains and central plateau. The country manages 2.5 percent of its forestland in protected reserves and aims to quadruple that.

A Swiss Academy of Sciences report in 2008 said the impacts of a warmer climate were already being felt in the forests, where budding was occurring earlier and extending the vegetation period by 5 to 6 days a year.

Its study of what Switzerland might look like in 2050 based on projected greenhouse gas emissions noted that extreme climate-related events such as storms, summer heat waves and “major fires in the Valais” were occurring more frequently “and have caused damage to forests.”

Weeks of dry weather have led to record low water level in many Swiss lakes. Shipping on the Rhine has also been affected. Many ships are unable to carry full loads due to low water levels as farmers are worried about possible crop failure.

“The situation is slowly getting precarious,” Andreas Buser of the Agriculturual Institute Ebenrain told Basler Zeitung.

Dry weather has also encouraged bark beetles to hatch early. The beetles can badly damage previously healthy trees, and this year three generations of the insects are expected to flourish instead of two in a normal year.

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