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Skaters, ice fishermen should be wary on ponds and lakes

BRATTLEBORO—“There are so many different variables when it comes to ice,” said Brattleboro Assistant Fire Chief Peter Lynch.

That is a bit of an understatement, considering that last week’s below-freezing weather was followed by torrential rains and 50 degree temperatures on Sunday and Monday.

The up-and-down roller coaster of weather that is a Vermont winter means that skaters and ice fishermen need to be wary on local ponds and lakes.

“There’s no good way to tell how thick the ice is,” said Brattleboro Fire Lt. Chuck Keir, the commander of the Brattleboro Dive Rescue Team, which performs ice rescues around Windham County.

Many factors affect the safety of ice, including temperature, water currents, and snow cover, Keir said. Generally, new ice is safer than old ice, but ice thickness is rarely consistent over a single body of water.

In other words, while the thought of venturing out on the first, or skim, ice on a pond is tempting, it’s much safer to wait.

So how thick does the ice need to be for safety?

According to Keir, 4 to 6 inches of clear, blue ice — the kind that forms during several days and nights of low temperatures — is generally considered safe enough for ice fishing and small group activities. Slushy ice has only half the strength of blue ice.

If you are one of the brave souls who drive their pickups on the ice of the Retreat Meadows, consider this:

According to the American Pulpwood Society, it takes 8 inches of ice to support a car or light truck (2½-ton gross weight) and 12 inches for a heavy truck (7-to-8-ton gross weight).

The Pulpwood Society advises to reduce the minimum safe ice thicknesses by 15 percent for clear, blue river ice.

But when it comes to driving out onto the ice, Lynch and Keir are not big fans.

“The ice can seem strong in one spot and be unsafe just a few feet away,” Keir said. “It’s something we don’t recommend.”

Rescue awareness

Keir said well-meaning Good Samaritans often end up in trouble themselves when they try to help someone who has fallen through thin ice.

“The main thing is to keep calm and call 911 first,” Keir advised would-be rescuers. “If the person in the water can work their way to the edge of the ice, guide them to the edge.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, rescuers should remember this sequence — preach, reach, throw, row, go.

• Preach: Shout to the victim to encourage fighting to survive and to reassure that help is on the way.

• Reach: If you can safely reach the victim from shore, extend an object such as a rope, ladder, or jumper cable. If the person starts to pull you in, release your grip on the object and start over.

• Throw:  Toss the victim one end of a rope or something that will float. Have the victim affix the rope before becoming too weak to grasp it.

• Row: Find a light boat to push across the ice ahead of you to the edge of the hole. Get into the boat and pull the victim in over the bow. It’s not a bad idea to attach some rope to the boat so others can help pull you and the victim to safety.

• Go: A non‑professional shouldn’t go out on the ice to perform a rescue unless all other basic rescue techniques have been ruled out — a point that Keir stressed.

Keir added that once someone is pulled out of the water, medical attention is in order.

“Hypothermia is always the biggest danger,” he said. “You don’t have to be in the water for a long time before you’re in trouble.”

For people who spend a lot of time on the ice, ice claws are a good idea, Lynch and Keir said.

Ice claws are usually nails driven into wooden dowels. If you fall through the ice, they allow you to get a firm grip and pull yourself out. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has instructions on how to make and use them at www.dnr.state.mn.us/safety/ice/claws.html.

Keir also said that people should resist the urge to rescue animals that might be stranded on the ice, particularly river ice, lest would-be rescuers end up needing to be rescued themselves.

In general, people shouldn’t go out onto the ice alone and should avoid going out at night, he said.

“And have a plan,” Keir advised.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #80 (Wednesday, December 15, 2010).

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