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Spell of unseasonable cold keeps icy grip on Fairbanks

Mike Dunham
ERIC ENGMAN / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via Associated Press

Cold weather fouling your holiday mood this week? Here's something to be thankful for: At least you're not in Fairbanks.

A record-breaking deep freeze that settled on the Interior city eased a bit Tuesday, but temperatures haven't crept above zero since Nov. 13, according to the National Weather Service

The lowest lows came last Thursday, hitting 41 degrees below zero, with more chilly readings expected through the end of the week.

Monday marked five straight days of record cold at the airport, with lows well below minus 20 predicted for today and Thanksgiving Day and down to 30 below on Friday.

On Tuesday, the temperature topped 20 degrees below zero for the first time in seven days.

Fairbanks sourdoughs might not flinch at those temperatures, but there are serious inconveniences that come with the cold snap. It has flattened tires, frozen pipes and taken the spark out of car batteries. It's too cold to ski.

"I have 29 below on my car temperature right now," said Brenda Birdsall of Mt. Aurora Skiland, 21 miles north of the city, site of the furthest north chairlift in North America, if not the world.

The ski area has not set a date for when it might open this season.

"We have a handful of hard-cores who'll be demanding we be open, but we have to err on the side of caution," Birdsall said.

Moose Mountain, the other privately owned downhill ski resort near Fairbanks, plans to open as scheduled on Friday. That resort takes skiers to the top in warm buses, which gets around the problem of exposure on a chairlift.

Last Thursday saw a daytime high of 31 degrees below zero in Fairbanks and a low of minus 41. Typical readings at this time of year are around 10 degrees in the day and 5 below at night.

CAR PROBLEMS

The early cold snap is taking a toll on cars. The phones rang constantly at the Interior Towing shop while Kevin Sevier talked to a reporter on Monday.

"We've been working nonstop for the last five days," Sevier said. "It's insane."

The company runs six tow trucks and they've been busy around the clock, he said. "Right now we're about three to five hours out on the calls."

Major problems include dead batteries, tires that lose their pressure and go flat and engines that "just freeze up, cold lock."

The tow truck drivers bundle in layers and carry multiple pairs of gloves, Sevier said. "You wear one pair and leave the other on a heater to keep them warm, then switch out."

The right gear also is important to emergency services providers. "You have to dress appropriate for the cold," said Fairbanks Fire Chief Warren Cummins. "Long johns, sweaters, face covers. It's good that the fire protection equipment is made to withstand heat, because that makes it good for cold weather, too."

Fighting fires at subzero temperatures can be a problem. "The biggest thing is you always have to keep the water moving," said Cummings. "One little break in action, if you shut it off, it'll freeze up in minutes."

But things have been quiet overall at the fire department, Cummings said. "Traffic is a down. For the most part, people stay home for the first few days of a cold snap. If they don't have to go somewhere, they won't do it."

There can also be an increase in car fires at these temperatures, he said. Fuel lines break. People plug in their cars to various electric warming devices that can short out. On older cars they may try various fluids to encourage a cold car to start, though that's less of a problem now that fuel injection has become the norm, Cummings said.

FROZEN PIPES

But the fire danger at home remains, mainly from overworked heating systems and people trying to thaw frozen pipes with welding torches and other high-heat sources.

Among those with frozen pipes this week was a sewer thawing service in the town of North Pole, just south of Fairbanks. The floor heating pipes froze at the shop where Septic Tank Service by Lemeta keeps its thaw truck. "We couldn't open our door to get the truck out," said Ronnie Ashbach. "But our phone kept ringing."

But even when the toilets freeze and the world's toughest skiers retreat indoors, Fairbanks children bundle up and head to their classes. Parents can elect to keep their kids home when the temperature goes below minus 40, said the Fairbanks North Slope Borough School District, but there is no official temperature at which the district cancels school because of cold.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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By MIKE DUNHAM
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