Race against time to clear the snow.

Unimog used to clear heavy snow from rooftops amid winter chaos in Austria.

As the new year begins, the heaviest snowfall in decades has turned parts of Austria and Bavaria into disaster areas. Several municipalities are no longer accessible with conventional vehicles, cut off from the outside world and thus lacking supplies. The risk of an avalanche is ever present, residents of areas badly affected by the snow are not even safe in their own homes. Many of the rooftops will be unable to withstand the heavy snow for long. It is a race against time for the firefighters, the THW disaster relief teams and many other emergency personnel who are trying to remove the snow before the buildings collapse.

There is considerable effort required from both man and machine at Amstetten’s fire department in Lower Austria when it comes to tackling the snow. One of the most important tools: the extreme off-road Unimog.

Side by side: Unimog and the firefighters.

Around 300 helpers from the fire department and the Federal Armed Forces have been working at an altitude of 1400 metres, day in day out, to free the buildings and lift systems at the valley station of the popular Hochkar ski resort from vast quantities of snow. Time and again, they have been dispatched to Austria’s Styria in order to coordinate their response according to urgency.

One of the biggest problems: rooftops that prove difficult to free from the many metres of snow. This work is not without risk for the response teams involved. In many poorly accessible places, the snow needs to be manually removed using a broom and shovel. Additional precautions involving hooks and rope are constantly needed to protect against falling.

Heavy machinery is required for large areas or those particularly high up. Many commercial vehicles don’t even make it to the location in question due to all the snow. These situations call for a special kind of “snow angel”. Two off-road Unimog trucks are thus being used by Amstetten’s fire department to tackle the extreme conditions. Equipped with a crane structure and clamshell bucket, these special trucks are supporting the difficult clearance operations.


Staying cool – even in stressful situations.

Persistent snowfall can quickly become a problem for regions at risk. In January 2019, locals describe buildings in Styria as unrecognisable, covered as they are in the snow. More than four metres of snow has fallen in some areas, blocking doors and windows. Before the snow can be removed from these rooftops, access first needs to be gained to the buildings themselves.

Did you know?

Depending on quantity and temperature, the density and weight of snow can vary considerably: while fresh powder snow weighs only 30 to 50 kg per square metre, metres of wet, old snow can quickly weigh ten times as much. A roof may thus be subjected to up to 1 tonne per square metre and more. If this snow is not removed quickly, there is an acute risk of collapse.

The heavy snow has also severed power lines. The result: a total blackout paralysed households in the disaster zone on Hochkar. However, well equipped, the fire-fighters and Federal Armed Forces not only restore lighting but also heating, kitchens and communication lines. And, with their numerous clearance operations, ensure safer routes and building access.

Those taking part in the rescue operations often found themselves in precarious situations. A snow storm on the Hochkar Alpine Road, cleared only for access by rescue teams, saw members of the team get stuck: around 180 people were temporarily trapped on the Hochkar summit and forced to spend the night there. The affected area of the gorge only passable again with blasting and the triggering of an artificial avalanche.

The experienced rescue crews remained cool and gave it their all. Fully supported by two red Unimog vehicles, the fire department in Amstetten brought the episode to a successful conclusion. Once the weather conditions eased off, power was quickly restored, the rooftops freed and the roads cleared. The tourist region is open again to visitors and can now start to enjoy the snow in all its splendour.

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