Forest fires have ravaged large sections of forested land near the Aletsch glacier in the Swiss canton of Valais/Wallis. The fire broke out on Monday, July 17, 2023, near the municipality of Bitsch, and summer winds fanned the fire up the entire mountain and into the neighboring region Riederalp, destroying around 100 hectares (around 250 acres) of native forest.
Several mountain villages had to be evacuated on Tuesday, as the fires got out off control. The Swiss Federal government declared a no-fly-zone over the area for recreational flights, only rescue and army machines are allowed to fly over the area from Friday July 21 to Friday July 28, 2023.
More than 200 residents were affected by the evacuation order, including residents of Oberried and Ried-Mörel. Other areas have been issues with warnings not just about the fires but also possible rock falls. The municipalities are hopeful that residents can return to their homes soon. Fire fighting efforts will continue all weekend and rainfalls forecast for Monday and Tuesday next week should come to the fire fighters’ aid.
Areas that are currently blocked off to the public are Wasen, Oberried and Riederfurka. The ski areas in the Aletsch Arena together with the infrastructure appear to not be in the fire zone. Ski areas include Bettmeralp, Riederalp, Mörel-Filet, Lax, Fiesch, Fieschertal and Fiescheralp. As of 11:00 a.m. on Friday, July 21, 2023, there is currently no danger for people in the Aletsch Arena. The majority of the closed off zone is outside the resort infrastructure and all access roads to the resorts remain open. The only road blocked is the access road to Bitsch via Ried-Mörel. All gondolas remain operational and 280 km out of 317 km of the regional hiking trails remain open. Trails around the Riederhorn (both north and south) are currently closed, as well as the paragliding area at Riederalp.
The Swiss Army, regional police, Air-Zermatt as well as local fire patrols and civil service agencies have been working tirelessly to fight the fires from the ground as well as the air. It is expected that efforts will continue into next week at least. A Super-Puma helicopter equipped with an infra-red camera flew over the area on Friday morning and took thermal images, which established that the surface temperature in the area is still at 200°C (392°F).
The cause of the fire is still unknown and thankfully no human loss has been reported. The damage to the forest is significant. About 140 soccer fields worth of trees were lost and experts anticipate that it will take between 100-200 years for the forest to re-grow. Experts of the Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape (‘WSL’) Thomas Wohlgemuth and Marco Conedera stated that human intervention through measures like replanting will not required, instead ‘pioneer species’ such as the trembling poplar and the birch can form a bush forest in 20 to 30 years. A pioneer species is a species that first colonizes new habitats after disturbance.
If you are currently traveling to, or are planning to travel to the area, make sure to check the road status for the Aletsch Arena before heading out.
Please respect the total fireban in the entire canton of Valais/Wallis.