Three people in Fernie, B.C., have died from possible exposure to ammonia after emergency crews were called to the Fernie Memorial Arena for reports of an ammonia leak just before noon on Tuesday.

WorkSafeBC says it's believed the three were workers at the arena.

In a statement, the City of Fernie says all homes and businesses in the downtown area between Ninth and 13th streets on Highway 3 and Sixth Avenue have been evacuated.

"The site has been secured. However, crews are still unable to safely enter the facility," the statement said. "The evacuation will continue for residents in the evacuation area until the city is able to contain the leak."

Local state of emergency

Fire Chief Ted Ruiter said between 50 and 60 people are receiving emergency social services and could remain away from their homes and businesses for the rest of Tuesday night.

The city, which has declared a seven-day local state of emergency, said residents in the evacuation area have been provided overnight accommodations.

The city is asking people in the evacuated area to check in with emergency social services at the Senior Citizens Drop-In Centre at 562 Third Avenue.

Fernie arena Facebook post

The City of Fernie had posted this message to Facebook Tuesday morning: 'Notice: The arena will be closed today while crews complete emergency repairs to the refrigeration plant.' (City of Fernie/Facebook)

'A tragic situation'

The city said details about the victims would be released once they are identified and their next of kin are notified.

"This is a tragic situation; families and friends are grieving and our hearts are with them — we send them our thoughts and condolences," Minister of Labour Harry Bains said in a statement.

"Like every British Columbian, my heart breaks for the loved ones of those involved and the entire close-knit community of Fernie."

A ministry of labour spokesperson said counselling would be made available to family and colleagues of the deceased.

WorkSafe BC on its way

WorkSafe BC said it sent investigators Tuesday afternoon and more will be arriving Wednesday morning. RCMP are in control of the scene.

The city said CIMCO Refrigeration is assisting city crews, but it is looking for "additional specialized resources to deal with the hazardous situation."

Officials have not said if others were inside the facility at the time of the leak. Ruiter said there were no injuries in addition to the deaths.

Ammonia is commonly used in mechanical refrigeration systems, including those found in ice rinks. Ammonia is used in liquid form in these systems but becomes a gas once it is released into the air.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says ammonia is a colourless gas that is very toxic if inhaled and can cause death.

Symptoms of ammonia poisoning may include coughing, shortness of breath, difficult breathing and tightness in the chest. The centre also says symptoms may develop hours after exposure and are made worse by physical effort.

In addition to being used in ice rinks, ammonia is used in fertilizer and to make plastics, fibres and other chemicals.

Dealing with weather

Earlier Tuesday, the City of Fernie had posted to its Facebook page that the arena would be closed for the day "while crews complete emergency repairs to the refrigeration plant." Fire chief Ruiter said it wasn't immediately apparent that ammonia was the cause of the emergency.

Mayor Mary Giuliano said the city spent much of Tuesday dealing with widespread power outages and wind.

"We have winds that are unbelievable. I've never seen winds like this in Fernie before," Giuliano said. "It's been quite a day."

The fire chief said his crews were also receiving calls to deal with downed trees and power lines while the arena emergency unfolded.

The Fernie Memorial Arena is home to the Junior B Fernie Ghostriders and is also listed as available for public skates and ice rentals.

With files from Matt Meuse and Matthew Black