Stragglers pack up as Swiss village is evacuated under rockslide threat

The rumble of shifting ground and sporadic crackle of a few rocks colliding and sliding down underscored the rising urgency for locals to get out of town by a 6 p.m. Friday deadline set by authorities

View of the village and the "Brienzer Rutsch", taken in Brienz-Brinzauls, Switzerland
View of the village and the "Brienzer Rutsch", taken in Brienz-Brinzauls, Switzerland, Friday, May 12, 2023.ARND WIEGMANN (AP)

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

As geologists and other experts in fluorescent vests took measurements on Friday, villagers and vacationers bared their emotion that the centuries-old Alpine village of Brienz — home to under 100 residents — could be soon be subsumed under spilling rock.

Swiss authorities say about 2 million cubic meters of rock on an Alpine mountainside overhead could soon come crashing down.

Erosion over generations has left the bald-faced mountainside white, gray 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 p.m. 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 neighbors packed up cars and trucks, too. Barriers blocked off roads and a sign under a portable traffic light read: “Extreme danger of rockfall when red.”

A Zurich woman who has for years vacationed in the bucolic village stood back about 30 meters (100 feet) 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 meters (3,800 feet).

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 2 million cubic meters 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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