SYDNEY – Australia’s alpine resorts have dusted off winter snow-making machines to blast ice-cold water onto dry ski slopes as huge bush fires threaten to engulf the Snowy Mountains region.
Heat and erratic winds were forecast Friday for the area, located about 200 kilometers (125 miles) inland from the coastal fires ravaging the country’s southeast, and officials warned of “extreme” danger.
Thousands in the southeast abandoned their homes for evacuation centers and military helicopters dropped emergency supplies to towns at risk of being isolated by blazes fanned by rising winds on Friday.
The danger was centered on New South Wales and Victoria, Australia’s most populous states, where temperatures and wind speeds were escalating after a few days of relatively benign conditions.
In Victoria, evacuation orders were issued in alpine areas. Premier Daniel Andrews pleaded with residents to evacuate fire-danger areas when alerts have been issued.
The unprecedented fire crisis in southeast Australia has claimed at least 26 lives, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched an area twice the size of Maryland since September.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Australian military has been put on standby to help firefighters and emergency agencies.
At Perisher, the largest ski resort in the Southern Hemisphere, images from live cameras showed snow guns connected to long hoses funneling water instead of white powder.
“We have been preparing the resort ahead of worse fire conditions,” the resort said in an emailed statement. “We are utilizing resort infrastructure including snowmaking to support fire authorities.”
The tactic was also being deployed at the Thredbo Ski Resort, southeast of Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko.
“They have turned all the snow makers on, so that’s stopped the ember attacks,” Stephen Turner, owner of the Aneeki Ski Lodge in Thredbo, said by phone.
Firefighting planes flew low over Perisher and other ski fields Friday, dumping bright-red fire retardant to help protect infrastructure and chairlifts.
Locals are worried about suffering the same fate as the Selwyn Snow Resort, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Thredbo in Kosciuszko National Park, which was razed by fires a week ago. The blazes destroyed the resort buildings and damaged snow equipment.
The usually temperate Snowy Mountains region is a popular tourist spot even in summer, particularly with hikers, mountain bikers and other nature lovers.
An estimated 479,000 people usually visit during the snow-free period. This season’s summer tourists fled as authorities closed the national park a week ago because of the fire threat.
Residents who remained used a reprieve from searing temperatures this week to strengthen containment lines around their homes and businesses.
“We’ve got water tanks on the hill, so we’re going to put in sprinklers to where we pull all the vegetation around the building — we then are going to put the sprinkler system to keep the ground wet,” said Mark Glover, part-owner of the Thredbo Farm Ski Lodge and a volunteer firefighter.
Much of the bush land in the region is very dry after a three-year drought.
High in the mountains, state park staffers earlier this week wrapped some of the regions 200 heritage-listed wooden alpine huts — some built more than 100 years ago by stockmen, miners and skiers — in fire retardant foil.
“Our only hardware store ran out of anything remotely associated with fire fighting,” said Cameron Barton, who owns a sports apparel store in Jindabyne and lives at a property outside of town, by phone. “We ran out of hoses, fittings, pumps, absolutely everything was gone and people have been scrambling.”
Snowy Monaro Regional Council Mayor Peter Beer said locals had done as much as they can and the fate of the alpine towns is now in the hands of nature.
“They’ll be able to spread the ground with snow guns that they’ve got,” he said. “We don’t know how effective that will be, though.”