Point Pelee, Leamington Fire cooperating on emergency response plans

Point Pelee National Park and Leamington Fire are prepared to help each other should there be a flooding emergency at the park.

'This was a natural floodplain and that's why we have issues with water there still'

A sign posted at the mouth of the boardwalk at the marsh warns about flooded areas. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

High water levels in the Great Lakes and strong winds are affecting Point Pelee National Park's shoreline. Potential flooding in the area has Leamington Fire and Point Pelee coordinating their emergency plans.

Storms coming from the east cause marsh levels to rise quickly, said park ecologist Tammy Dobbie.

At one point there was a buffer between the marsh and Lake Erie, allowing the water to percolate through the sand slowly. The marsh ridge was breached, creating about a 100-metre wide opening.

"Now we get these immediate, even higher levels of Lake Erie so you see that flooding in the parking lot and around the boardwalks and some of our trails also in low-lying areas in the swamp forest are also covered in water," said Dobbie.

Dobbie said big storms are eroding the sand and damaging large trees and established vegetation on the east side of the park. Point Pelee has dealt with heavy storms in the past, but Dobbie said things are different since she started working at the park in 1993.

The park's ecologist explains what happens at the park after a heavy rainfall. 1:06

Stronger storms can bring very heavy rainfall which can affect the entire area. When that happens in a short period of time, it can temporarily flood the park roads.

The water can usually drain quickly as the park has natural areas with lots of lush vegetation — but not always.

"It can, like we saw in the spring, take several days for water levels to go down after an extreme rain event," Dobbie said.

So far this year, the park hasn't had to remove people because of those high levels, but two years ago when the marsh was on fire an evacuation plan was used. The same kind of plan would apply if there was a flood.

"If we were to have a flood situation temporarily inside the park, because of a storm or heavy flood event rain event, we have the park staff available to escort people out of the park and safely make sure that they're able to exit the park safely," said Dobbie.

The area north of the park looked much different before development. Mike Ciacelli, deputy fire chief for Leamington Fire said it was once marshland and that's why it's particularly vulnerable to flooding. 0:22

Dobbie said the park consistently updates their emergency plans, working with the municipality and Leamington Fire Services (LFS).

In the summer, the park can see about 3,000 people on a weekend with fair weather. There can be up to 1,000 visitors during one time. The population of the park is in flux, so LFS asks the park to keep a record of people within the ground.

"At any given point in time, they may have 100 visitors that are there at 10 at night. We have had conversations with the point they're aware of our emergency flooding plan that we have," said LFS deputy chief Mike Ciacelli.

Both the park and the fire service are open to sharing whatever resources they have to help each other. Leamington Fire has a marine unit that can get to the outer boundaries of the shoreline. They also have an inflatable boat and dry suits for the firefighters. 

Marshy land vulnerable to flooding

The area north of the park looked much different before development. Ciacelli said it was once marshy land and that's why it's particularly vulnerable to flooding.

"We took that water out," said Ciacelli. "We started farming the fields. We started putting houses there, but naturally this was a natural floodplain and that's why we have issues with water there still."

Ciacelli said the eastern shore area is particularly prone to flooding when there are east or northeasterly winds, reaching more than 30 kilometres per hour, consistently, over a day or two. Residents in that area can sign up to get alerts if they need to leave their homes.

Mike Ciacelli, the deputy fire chief for Leamington Fire says the area near Point Pelee was marshy land before it was developed. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

"We can geofence those areas. We can tell people within certain areas that if there is a situation that we can ask them for a voluntary evacuation at that point," said Ciacelli.

Park officials and LFS said they are monitoring the current situation. For those living in the area it's recommended they keep a go-bag ready with important documents, water, cash, and medicine. For visitors to the park, officials have said there are park staff on the grounds ready to help when necessary.


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