Severe Cyclone Ita poses a ‘significant threat’ to Queensland’s far north with gales up to 280km/h and heavy rain expected to batter the region.

Evacuations have begun and Queensland’s premier is returning from overseas as the strongest cyclone since Yasi in 2011 moves in on the state’s far north.

Cyclone Ita is due to intensify into a category four storm early on Thursday morning and cross north of Cooktown on Friday night.

Gusts up to 280km/h, storm surges and heavy rain are expected which cause flooding in low-lying coastal areas.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) says Ita, which was 710km off the mainland on Wednesday afternoon, poses a “significant threat” to far northern coastal communities.

A cyclone watch alert is in place from Cape Grenville to Cairns.

Gales will extend hundreds of kilometres from the eye of the storm, affecting areas from Coen to Cairns over Thursday and Friday.

The storm comes three years after category five Yasi ripped through Queensland, causing $3.5 billion worth of damage and lost tourism earnings.

Yasi unleashed its wrath about 1000km south of where Ita is forecast to cross.

“The winds won’t be as strong as Yasi, but it will be the worst we’ve had since,” BOM forecaster Andrew Cameron told AAP.

All staff and guests have been evacuated off Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef as a precaution.

The last time the resort was evacuated was during Yasi, although the island wasn’t affected.

Premier Campbell Newman has also cut short his Asian trade mission with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and will fly home on Thursday to oversee preparations for Ita.

Those in the small Cape York communities likely to be affected spent Wednesday stocking up on supplies and clearing yards.

Peter Scott, mayor of Cookshire Council, which covers 80 per cent of Cape York, says Ita could be one of the worst storms to hit the area in decades.

“Residents need to be ready and have somewhere safe to shelter,” he told AAP.

Lockhart River Mayor Wayne Butcher says residents are concerned as there is no cyclone shelter in the isolated community.

“If a category four cyclone hits it will definitely throw spanners in the works for us,” he told AAP.

Local district disaster management groups held meetings across the state’s far north on Wednesday and extra police and emergency crews have been sent to at-risk areas.

There are no plans for evacuations just yet but residents are being urged to be prepared.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services says those in affected areas should secure their homes and ensure they have food, water and first aid supplies.

When the storm approaches residents should stay indoors.

Hospital emergency plans have been activated in Cooktown, Coen, Laura, Hopevale, Lockhart River and Wujal Wujal.

Before forming into cyclone Ita, the tropical depression led to 21 deaths in the Solomon Islands last week.