04/23/2015 04:00 EDT | Updated 07/20/2015 05:59 EDT

Northern Ontario First Nation community begins evacuation due to flooding

KASHECHEWAN, Ont. - The evacuation of a remote northern Ontario First Nation has begun as the rapidly rising Albany River threatens the community.

Three flights have already left the James Bay community of Kashechewan, Ont., en route to Kapuskasing, according to Chief Derek Stephen.

About 600 of the most vulnerable residents will be gone by Friday, Stephen said.

The dike protecting the community is old and inadequate, with an engineering assessment showing there's a "horrible risk of collapsing," he said.

The plan is to have all 1,900 residents leave within the next week with "15 to 20 men" remaining behind to keep an eye on the town and its precarious dike.

This is the fourth consecutive year the First Nation has had to be evacuated.

Stephen says the community spent $21 million on the evacuation last year, and millions more on repairs after much of the community had to live elsewhere for about a month. About 350 people still live in hotels and apartments in Kapuskasing because of last year's flood.

It's time to move the entire community to higher ground so they don't have to do this every spring when the ice thaws and the Albany River rises, Stephen said.

"We cannot continue to live this way," he told The Canadian Press on Wednesday.

The office of Bernard Valcourt, the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, said the government is "taking action" in First Nation communities across the country. The federal government is working along with the band council and the province to evacuate Kashechewan.

"We have made investments to hire an emergency preparedness co-ordinator to help James Bay First Nations, including Kaschechewan, prepare and manage potential spring flooding," said a statement from the minister's office.

Charlie Angus, the MP whose riding of Timmins-James Bay includes the flood-prone area, chastised the federal government for its inertia on the now-annual evacuation of the community.

"If the water moves too fast this year, that dike wall could fail, and there could be a catastrophe in that community," Angus said.

"The government knows it, the engineering reports show it, so why are we playing Russian roulette with the lives in Kashechewan year after year?"

-- Written by Liam Casey

Follow Liam Casey on Twitter @liamdevlincasey