Kashechewan, Fort Albany brace for bad flooding year

Kashechewan First Nation will begin a scheduled evacuation Thursday, but there are currently no flood waters threatening the James Bay community of 1,700. Elders and children are flown out every spring as a precaution and that's expected to start in the next few days.

'Excting and scary at the same time' says Kashechewan's 22-year-old fire chief

Kashechewan's 22-year-old fire chief Brandon Spence stands atop the community's dike where when he was a boy he told his dad he wanted to grow up to be the First Nation's emergency coordinator. (Erik White/CBC)

Kashechewan First Nation will begin a scheduled evacuation Thursday, but there are currently no flood waters threatening the James Bay community of 1,700.

Elders and children are flown out every spring as a precaution and that's expected to start in the next few days.

Kashechewan Fire Chief Brandon Spence says both Cree elders and government scientists are telling him deep snow and thick ice up stream could be a bad year for flooding.

"It was a cold winter and we had a lot of snow and if it warms up for a week this spring, that's when we're going to have a lot of water flowing down from the south," says the 22-year-old.

"Exciting and scary at the same time I would say."

Scientists, community officials and elders keep a close eye on the Albany River every spring for conditions that could cause flooding for the communities of Fort Albany and Kashechewan. (Erik White/CBC)

Spence grew up with the annual airlifts to the south and remembers looking forward to going shopping and go-karting in Timmins and Geraldton.

He also grew up admiring the emergency officials in Kashechewan and told his father one day when they were standing on top of the community's leaky dike that he would be fire chief one day.

This is Spence's second year leading the fire brigade of two dozen volunteers, most of whom are in their early 20s.

The CBC's Erik White speaks with Brandon Spence, the fire chief of Kashechewan, about growing up in the flood-prone James Bay community, why he was drawn to a life in emergency services and the risk the melting ice on the Albany River poses to the First Nation this year. 6:30

They get regular fire calls (including a vehicle fire during the flood evacuation last year) but coordinating how to get 1,700 people onto planes is the biggest part of his job.

"I want to see one day while I'm the fire chief, I don't have to do an evacuation this spring, I'm going to out and hunt and enjoy my time," says Spence, referring to the annual goose hunt that usually coincides with break-up and the annual evacuation.

The flood preparations for Kashechewan also include shovelling out the ditches so that water from melting snow does pool in the "bowl" created by the community's dike, as well as the grading of the First Nation's dirt roads so it'll be a smoother ride for evacuees riding buses to the airport.

Brandon Spence, 22, is the fire chief of Kashechewan First Nation. (Erik White/CBC)

There has long been talk of moving Kashechewan to higher ground on the Albany River.

The provincial and federal governments signed a framework agreement last year committing to making the community "sustainable" that could include the multi-million-dollar relocation.

Cree leaders argue that even if the pricetag is over half a billion dollars, the federal government will save in the long run since the annual cost of evacuating people and housing and feeding them in towns such as Kapuskasing runs between $15 and $20 million.

The previous federal Liberal government did agree to move Kashechewan in 2006 for $500 million, but that plan was scrapped by the incoming Conservative government, which instead promised to spend $200 million on infrastructure in the existing community.

Fort Albany has been flooded in the past, but it's not at as much risk as the neighbouring community of Kashechewan which is further up stream and at a lower elevation. (Erik White/CBC)

Across the river from Kashechewan is the neighbouring community of Fort Albany, which also has its own system of monitoring ice and snow conditions.

Because it is further down stream and at a higher elevation than Kashechewan, it doesn't at as much danger of flooding.

But Fort Albany flood coordinator Brent Nakoochee says people in the community do remember the bad years such as 2008 and 1985.

"A lot of people they're kind of used to it, but a lot of people still traumatized from that flood that happened back in 1985 and that's what it is, a fear that's always in the back of their mind," he says.