An evacuation of Bearskin Lake First Nation is underway as flood waters from the ice-jammed Severn River continue to threaten the remote northwestern Ontario community.
The community’s chief and council had declared a state of emergency last weekend, but initially held off on issuing an evacuation order on Monday after water levels had receded.
The first wave of evacuations flights began Wednesday morning.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief Derek Fox said the water has cut off road access to the airport, requiring a helicopter to be used to get residents to the waiting airplanes.
“As far as the people, the state of the community, they’re extremely stressed, tired, worried,” Fox said. “Not just about their lives but their homes, everything, you name it. I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”
Fox said at least three flights to Sioux Lookout are scheduled for Wednesday.
Brent Ross, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, said the community has requested a full evacuation, requiring about 360 people to be moved.
“This effort will take several days,” Ross said in a written statement. “Our top priority remains the health and safety of the residents who are dealing with this unfortunate situation.”
Ross said the ministry is also working with community leadership, as well as federal partners and other provincial ministries, to try to protect local infrastructure.
In a late Wednesday afternoon news release, City of Thunder Bay officials said they are preparing to host 180 evacuees during the next two days. Sioux Lookout is expected to receive up to 175 people as early as Wednesday.
Fox, who is from Bearskin Lake, said he doesn’t believe this situation had ever happened before.
“For the river to flow the other way into the lakes and surrounding waters of Bearskin Lake to flood the community, it’s unheard of,” Fox said. “It’s rather shocking.”