ATHOL – Firefighters and town officials are carefully monitoring the Millers River after a mass of ice broke free early Saturday morning, jamming up parts of the river near bridges, causing damage and forcing the evacuation of elderly residents living near the river as a precaution.

Athol is not the only area community hit by ice jams and flooding. In Ware, an ice jam sent the Ware River over its banks and raging onto Church Street and Ware Airport. The road is closed and traffic detoured — it is expected to remain closed for some time.

Athol firefighters evacuated around 28 senior residents Saturday morning from the Morton Meadows housing complex near the river as a precaution, according to Town Manager Shaun A. Suhoski. Officials opened Town Hall as a shelter, and about 10 residents from the housing complex were using it. All evacuated residents of the complex have accommodations with family or friends, or have been provided overnight accommodations through the Salvation Army in conjunction with the United Way. No injuries have been reported.

The town manager said he is not sure when residents can return to their homes.

“It depends if the ice jam breaks and the river recedes,” he said.

According to a timeline provided by Mr. Suhoski, the river was flowing freely at 5:30 Saturday morning, but around 7 a.m., ice near L.S. Starrett Corp. let go. The ice mass hit the Exchange Street Bridge near Starrett, and the ice jams migrated to the area between the South Main Street Bridge and the area of the river near the town’s wastewater treatment plant that is experiencing very high flow but is secure, he said.

Firefighters from Orange, which is downstream on the Millers River, were called to Athol’s station to assist if further evacuations are required.

“There are no plans to open a formal shelter as the incident is limited to very specific at-risk properties,” Mr. Suhoski said. “The initial rush of ice caused several ‘hangars’ that secure a 10-inch water main to the underside of the Exchange Street Bridge to be swept downstream.”

A portion of the water main was shut down as a precaution, he said, but no customers were affected. Because of the risk of possible additional damage, the bridge is closed to traffic, he said.

“MassDOT has been advised and an inspection by their bridge team has been requested before the road is reopened,” Mr. Suhoski said.

Athol officials notified neighboring and downstream communities, and the Army Corps of Engineers at Birch Hill Dam is limiting the river’s flow, Mr. Suhoski said. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency is also standing by to assist, he said.

At the South Main Street Bridge, which each spring is filled with spectators watching hundreds of canoes make their way under the bridge during the popular annual River Rat Race, dozens of people were pulling over Saturday morning to get a glimpse of the ice-packed river that appeared flash-frozen and unmoving.

Athol resident Regina M. Greene, 71, a retired Oxford High School teacher, peered over the South Main Street Bridge at large chunks of ice that jammed the river on both sides of the bridge.

“I’ve seen it like this before,” Ms. Greene said, recalling one year when dynamite was used to blast ice jams on the river. “At the Exchange Street Bridge, that’s where people usually get a lot of damage. It has been so cold the river froze with thick ice and then we had an instant melt and it has no place to go and jams up under the bridges. I have sympathy for people in low-lying areas. It is going to take a long time for this to get through, and it is freezing back up, again.”

Stephen E. Schafron has rented the downstairs apartment of a two-family home next to the South Main Street Bridge for six years. He said police stopped by his house around 8 Saturday morning and asked if he was storing anything of value in the basement or the garage. By 10 a.m. his backyard was flooded almost over the top of his 5-foot-tall tiki torches and water was pouring from beneath the garage door. Fortunately, his basement was still dry.

“I took my snowblower and other stuff out of the garage this morning,” Mr. Schafron said. “Police told me there was going to be a lot of water real quick. I’ve never seen it like this. If it comes up another foot, I’m concerned about the cellar. How do you pump it? There’s nowhere for it to go.”

Shawn C. Pirro from Orange was checking out the ice jams with his 8-year-old son Liam S. Pirro, who was amazed at how high the water was in Mr. Schafron’s backyard. Mr. Pirro explained to his son how ice jams occur.

“It reminds me of Alaska when the ice breaks up in the springtime,” Mr. Pirro said. “This is incredible.”

Over at the Exchange Street Bridge, water rapidly flowed over the dam, but there were large chunks and thick sheets of ice around the banks.

Though most people expressed concern about flooding, forklift operator Angel L. Rivera, 41, who has lived in Athol 11 years, had pulled his truck over to get a glimpse and was in awe of the beauty of it.

“I had to stop and look at it,” Mr. Rivera said. “It is beautiful. What God can do. Amen.”


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