Switzerland evacuates village threatened by vast rockfall

By Cecile Mantovani and Denis Balibouse

BRIENZ, Switzerland (Reuters) - Swiss authorities have ordered residents to abandon a tiny mountain village in the eastern canton of Graubunden because of fears it could soon be buried beneath a collapsing mountainside.

A thick coat of fog covered the mountaintop overlooking the village of Brienz on Thursday, where vegetation has been replaced by a slope of mud and rocks.

Farm workers could be seen loading cows onto a truck and driving it out of the nearly deserted village. Some areas were cordoned off, with yellow warning signs in five languages that read: "Attention rockfall."

Local authorities say Brienz is at risk because 2 million cubic metres (2.6 million cubic yards) of rock could soon break off the mountain, damaging or outright crushing its quaint homes.

"The rock moves at a speed of up to 36 metres (39 yards) per year," said Christian Gartmann, a member of the crisis management board of Albula, a municipality that includes Brienz. "We expect it to fall towards the village within the next few days or weeks."

Brienz's population of fewer than 100 people have been given until Friday evening to evacuate. The village's mayor, Daniel Albertin, is confident all residents will have left by then.

"This is a huge task for the entire community," he said.

One farmer, tending to the cows being evacuated, agreed.

"It's just a big effort for us now," Hanneke Bonifaci said as she opened their enclosure. "It's a very short time, but it's doable."

Climate change is putting Switzerland at increased risk of natural hazards, including an increase in erosion due to higher temperatures, Swiss authorities say.

The extent of the damage that could fall upon Brienz remains anyone's guess.

"The rock can come down in sections, which would be the most favourable solution," Gartmann said. "It can also fall all at once, which would be disastrous for the village."

(Reporting by Cécile Mantovani and Denis Balibouse in Brienz; Additional reporting by Ulrike Heil in Berlin; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Toby Chopra and Jonathan Oatis)