The 2,500 people of St George woke up to rare good news on Saturday, as forecasters lowered their projections for how high the engorged Balonne River would be rising.

Residents were earlier warned the river would reach a record 14 metres this weekend and engulf 40 per cent of their beleaguered Queensland town. That was revised to 13.4 metres, meaning only dozens and not hundreds of houses will be inundated.

“At least it gives us a flood peak that puts our mind at rest,” Balonne Shire Mayor Donna Stewart said.

South of St George, the swollen Mary River is barrelling through Maryborough and Gympie, raising fears among townsfolk that Australia’s worst floods in 50 years are about to arrive on their doorsteps.

The Mary is expected to crest at 7.5 metres on Sunday. “Tomorrow, we might be in big trouble,” Fraser Coast Mayor Mick Kruger said.

For St George, 500 kilometres west of Brisbane, it is the second major flood in a year. Some are still renovating their houses after a metre of water came through in March.

Barnaby Joyce, a member of the federal parliament who lives in St George, said a volunteer army had been filling thousands of sandbags to try and keep the water our.

“There’ve been evacuations, the drains have been blocked off, temporary levees have been placed, both private and public,” he said.

“We’re doing about everything within our own power to try and make sure we mitigate the effects of the flood.” Bureau of Meteorology hydrologist Jimmy Stuart said thunderstorms expected in Queensland over the weekend would not make a dire situation that much worse.

“Certainly in central Queensland we think that the major phase has now passed,” Stuart said. “But obviously we’ve got months of recovery work to do.” One person filling sandbags in St George is Belgian backpacker Lynn Lefevere, who with fellow would-be grape pickers is pitching in to defend the town.

“It’s pretty confusing to come here and see Australia like this,” Lefevere told The Australian newspaper. “My parents told me to be careful about the bushfires because the weather would always be hot and sunny.”

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