A town located in the heart of central Ontario’s cottage country has declared a state of emergency due to rising water levels and widespread flooding.

On Tuesday, Mayor Graydon Smith announced the town of Bracebridge, Ont., located nearly a two-hour drive north of Toronto, would activate its emergency plan. The town cited concerning waters levels on the area’s lakes and rivers, as well as localized flooding, which has washed out a number of roads.

During a joint press conference with Ontario Premier Doug Ford in Bracebridge, Smith said emergency personnel would be going door-to-door in the hard-hit Springdale Shores area Wednesday to advise residents to evacuate their homes.

“We’ve got a number of folks down there that we believe should be somewhere else,” he said.

The mayor said displaced residents can go to the Bracebridge Memorial Arena, which has been set up as a staging area for the emergency.

Ford offered the province’s support to the community when he met with town officials on Wednesday morning.

“I had an opportunity to sit down with emergency services along with the mayor just to make sure that they know that the province is 100 per cent behind them. We’ll spare no resources to support the affected areas,” he told the press conference.

When asked what kind of support the province would provide, Ford replied that it was still too soon to say, and they would accommodate any requests from the mayor.

Bruce MacVicar, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo, told CTV News Channel that this type of government assistance raises questions about future expropriation, especially in towns like Bracebridge where infrastructure was built before flood plain mapping existed.

“Some of these homes cannot be insured, so if they are damaged typically the government is asked to step in and help them recover to pay for some of the costs,” MacVicar explained.

“So the government then gets interested in saying, ‘Please move out of this area, it’s not cost effective to keep rebuilding in these areas.’”

MacVicar noted that expropriation efforts have worked well in Alberta’s High River community, where the government stepped in to buy more than 20 upscale homes after they were damaged in 2013 by flood waters.

“It’s a very rational choice to make,” said MacVicar. “It’s been done in Toronto after Hurricane Hazel. That was an event people hadn’t seen before in terms of its magnitude and so they bought a lot of homes out along the river areas, flood prone areas. That’s been quite effective -- it means the river has room to move around and the flood can pass without anyone suffering any harm.”

Ontario conservation authorities said this week that the Ford government has slashed funding for flood-management programs as part of overall budget cuts.

Smith also took the opportunity to stress the seriousness of the emergency.

“We also really want to get the attention by declaring this emergency of those that are affected so that they know this isn’t just springtime happening. This is something way outside the normal margins,” he said.

Smith said town officials are seeing water levels comparable to those they saw in 2013 when the area experienced the worst flooding in a century. In a statement, the Town of Bracebridge said it expects the North Branch Muskoka River to exceed 2013 levels.

“We’re concerned it could get a little bit worse from here and are taking appropriate measures,” Smith told CP24 during a phone interview on Wednesday.

The South Branch Muskoka River water level is approaching the level they reached in 2013 and is expected to increase over the next few days, the town said. Lake Muskoka’s water level is also predicted to continue to rise while the Black River’s water level has subsided.

Smith said rural areas have been harder hit while the town itself has been mostly spared.

“For the most part, our town is fine, but you drive around the corner and suddenly you can come in to a nasty surprise in certain areas,” he said.

The mayor said the personal safety of the town’s approximately 16,000 residents is “paramount.” He advised anyone who may be in danger to call 911.

“We have resources available to help so all people need to do is call and they’ll get that help,” he said.

The town said its Emergency Control Group is monitoring the situation closely and its Public Works department has been responding to problems on year-round roads, but it will take time to reopen others that have also been washed out.

Residents have been advised to watch for changing conditions and take precautionary measures, including:

  • Heed road signs warning of closures
  • Don’t attempt to drive on flooded roads
  • Protect properties in low-lying areas at risk of water damage

The town also said free sandbags will be available seven days a week.

Rain has been forecast for Bracebridge and surrounding areas, which may worsen the flooding, the town said in a statement.

As for surrounding areas, Smith said they’re keeping a close eye on their neighbours to the north in Huntsville, Ont. where high water levels are also being reported.

“Everything that happens in the north, eventually gets to us in the south,” he said.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Town of Huntsville advised residents who experienced flooding in 2013 to be prepared for a similar situation this year.

“High water levels will continue in the Huntsville area for the next 72 hours as large amounts of spring runoff pass through the system. Localized flooding and roads closures will continue as we experience water levels equal to the 2013 flood event,” the statement read.

In the Parry Sound District, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in the Parry Sound District said a flood warning is in effect for the region, which includes the District Municipality of Muskoka, the Territorial District of Parry Sound, and a northwest portion of the County of Haliburton.