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One hundred villagers in Switzerland flee as experts warn rockslide set to roll

A road is blocked in front of the "Brienzer Rutsch" rockfall danger zone in Brienz-Brinzauls, Switzerland, Friday, May 12, 2023.
A road is blocked in front of the "Brienzer Rutsch" rockfall danger zone in Brienz-Brinzauls, Switzerland, Friday, May 12, 2023. Copyright Arnd Wiegmann/AP
Copyright Arnd Wiegmann/AP
By Euronews with AP
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One hundred residents have abandoned their chalets and farms in an idyllic Swiss village after geologists warned tonnes of rocks on the mountain above them could be about to give way.

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Stragglers packed up belongings in cars, trucks and a least one pickup truck before an evacuation order took effect on Friday in the tiny village of Brienz in eastern Switzerland that is facing an urgent rockslide threat.

Swiss authorities say about two million cubic metres of rock on an Alpine mountainside overhead could soon come crashing down.

Erosion over generations has left the bald-faced mountainside white, grey and orange with exposed rock and earth, and a few boulders have already made their way onto the edge of the village in the verdant valley. One sat menacingly next to a small wood cabin.

The rumble of shifting ground, the sporadic crackle of rocks colliding, and the remains of dead trees and dirt sliding down the mountain facade Friday brought an eerie sense of portent to the village and underscored the rising urgency for locals to get out of town by the 6 pm deadline set by authorities.

Earlier this week, authorities upgraded the alert status to 'orange', which meant residents had to evacuate but could also return during the day to pick up belongings, if conditions allowed.

By Friday evening, authorities had raised the alert to 'red' - meaning that no returns would be allowed for the foreseeable future, said Christian Gartmann, a member of the crisis management board in the town of Albula, which counts Brienz in its municipality.

One woman loaded up a pickup truck with a caged pet turtle, named Max, and other belongings as neighbours alpacked up cars and trucks, too. Barriers blocked off roads and a sign under a portable traffic light read: "Extreme danger of rockfall when red."

Arnd Wiegmann/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Residential buildings and a church stand in front of the "Brienzer Rutsch" the rockfall danger zone in Brienz-Brinzauls, Switzerland, Friday, May 12, 2023.Arnd Wiegmann/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

A Zurich woman, who has for years vacationed in the bucolic village, stood back about 30 metres from a barrier on the edge of the village to look up worryingly at the mountainside.

Centuries-old Brienz straddles German-and Romansch-speaking parts of the eastern Graubunden region, sitting southwest of Davos at an altitude of about 1,150 metres.

The mountain and the rocks on it have been moving since the last Ice Age, officials say. But on Tuesday, they said measurements indicated a "strong acceleration over a large area" in recent days, and "up to two million cubic metres of rock material will collapse or slide in the coming seven to 24 days."

Gartmann said experts estimate a 60% chance the rock will fall in smaller chunks, which may not reach the village or the valley. The landslide could also move slowly. But there's also a 10% chance that the rock mass may spill down, threatening lives, property and the village itself.

Glacier melt has affected the precariousness of the rocks over millennia, but melting glaciers due to "man-made" climate change in recent decades wasn't a factor, he said.

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