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Beware: avoid thin ice on unmonitored lakes, ponds

January 16, 2013

ROCHESTER — Despite temperatures dipping and snow accumulating, officials around Rochester advise residents to stay off any unmonitored lakes or ponds that may appear to be frozen.

During the winter, Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik said, there are many places kids might want to go to ice skate, but the only pond within the city of Rochester that is monitored for safety is the one behind the municipal building at 400 Sixth St.

“Our (Department of Public Works) is very diligent in watching that pond for safety to make sure that the ice is thick enough and is in good enough condition to be able to skate on. They do keep it clean and shoveled, and most times, it’s lit, so people can skate at night. There is also a sign to let people know if it is safe to skate on,” he said. “That said, there are multiple other ponds within the city that people try to skate on. The problem is, we do not monitor those — the city does not go out and check the ice to see how thick it is and how hard it is and make sure it’s safe. So when people go onto those ponds, they are going on with a certain amount of risk because nobody has looked at them or evaluated them for safety.”

Despite the warnings, Cieslik said, he knows that some people still venture out on unsafe ice, so he offered a few tips to help keep those risk-takers safe. He warns people to stay off the ice if it’s fewer than 4 inches thick. When the ice is at least 4 inches thick, he said, it’s good for skating, and he noted that ice at least 5 inches thick is needed to handle snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

Generally speaking, Cieslk said, venturing out onto smaller bodies of water is a better idea than larger ones — since smaller ones tend to freeze quicker — although it’s still quite dangerous. He warned that it takes several days of cold weather for a pond or lake to completely freeze.

“Stay off the ice along the shoreline if it’s cracked or squishy, and watch out for thin areas where the ice could show indications of being thinned or honeycombed. The honeycombing sometimes comes from the thaw and freeze cycle, when you have the snow on it,” he said. “Before heading out, I recommend testing the ice on the edge. That way, if you do fall in the water, it’s not as deep on the edges. You may get your pants wet, but you won’t fall all the way in. Keep in mind that ponds freeze from the edges to the center.”

Luckily, Cieslik said, his department rarely receives emergency calls for those who fall through ice, but he advises anyone who witnesses someone in such danger to dial 911 as soon as possible.

“The main thing is, if you do break through the ice, try not to panic. Hopefully you have friends with you, and the friends would then immediately leave the ice and call 911 for help. Then if somebody is there, we would like them to throw something to the person in distress — like a rope or something along those lines — and encourage the person to try to stay calm and not thrash around,” he said.

Cieslik also suggested that the person in the water try to float and carefully ease their body up onto the edge of the ice.

“A lot of times, where the ice is thin, the ice might continue to break, but if they can go ahead and heave themselves up onto the ice, they should stay as flat as they can — like a pancake, so that way it distributes their weight across the ice — and just kind of almost crawl on your stomach off of the ice,” he added.

After the Fire and Ice Festival, held in downtown Rochester Jan. 25-27, the city of Rochester also plans to maintain the manmade skating rink created for the event in the parking lot at Water and Third Street, as long as the weather cooperates.

“That is also a safe place for people to skate this winter, since there is no risk of falling into a body of water,” Cieslik said.

Outside of those two monitored skating rinks, local outdoor skating will be harder to come by in 2013, as Stony Creek Metropark is not offering the option, even if temperatures and weather allow.

“We’re probably not going to have any ice skating this year,” Stony Creek Operations Manager Gary Hopp said.  “We need to do some maintenance work on the south dam that provides the water backed up to Stony Creek Lake.”

Hopp said that work would change the lake depth in a way that will make it unsuitable for skating but won’t affect the ability of ice fishermen to make use of the lake, once weather permits.

“As of right now, it doesn’t look like there will be enough water in the bay where we typically have ice skating,” Hopp said. “Ice fishermen will just have to go out further in the lake. They’ll just go out to the deeper part.”

Hopp said that the lakes at Stony Creek are not currently suitable for ice fishing, and that it would still take significantly more cold weather before they were accessible.

“It’s difficult because the weather really dictates when that will really be,” Hopp said of when the lakes would open for ice fishing. “We got a little cold spell, but it’s supposed to warm up. It’s a day-by-day process.”

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