Officials urging caution with frozen ponds, small lakes

South Whatcom firefighters practice ice rescue

South Whatcom Fire Authority firefighters and members of its water rescue team conducted ice rescue drills in 2017 at Lake Louise near Sudden Valley, Wash.
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South Whatcom Fire Authority firefighters and members of its water rescue team conducted ice rescue drills in 2017 at Lake Louise near Sudden Valley, Wash.

With the recent stretch of cold weather in Western Washington, many small lakes and ponds have frozen – a rare event that has local officials warning residents to resist the temptation to venture across bodies of water such as Lake Padden.

“We caution you not to go out there, especially if you don’t know how thick the ice is,” said Capt. Tony Melillo of South Whatcom Fire Authority, on an ice-rescue training video posted at the organization’s Facebook page and shared with The Bellingham Herald.

Bellingham Parks and Recreation officials posted signs at Lake Padden Park cautioning against activities on the ice. Nevertheless, several people went toward the center of the lake over the weekend, ice skating, sledding and playing hockey.

Tim Flores of Bellingham was on the ice near the Lake Padden shore with his family and a family friend as rain began to fall about noon Sunday.

“It scares me, and I’m extremely cautious,” said Flores, who spent his childhood in Wyoming. He said he often swims with his family at Lake Padden, so he knows the depth of the water and wouldn’t let the children go past where the water would be over their heads if the ice shattered and they fell in. He also carried a rope to use for rescue.

Despite his misgivings about safety, Flores said he couldn’t resist the lure of the ice.

“How often does Padden freeze? Holy cow!” he said.

Johnny Burg of the National Weather Service in Seattle said he didn’t know of any agency in the state that issues ice warnings, because it doesn’t regularly freeze for long periods in the lowlands of Western Washington.

“It’s just not something you see here that often,” Burg said. “For me, personally, unless it’s an ice rink, I would never go on it.”

Freezing temperatures in Whatcom County have turned Squalicum Lake, best known for summer fly fishing, into an impromptu skating rink for a dozen or so hockey enthusiasts Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017, near Bellingham, Wash.

Weak ice nearly spelled tragedy last week for two 15-year-old boys as firefighters rescued the pair when they plunged into a lake north of Lynnwood. The teens were hospitalized but OK, according to reports in The Seattle Times and KOMO-TV.

Daytime high temperatures in lowland Whatcom County have been averaging 36 degrees, or about 8 degrees below normal, since New Year’s Day, according to weather service data.

Small pieces of ice clung to the Lake Padden shoreline for the annual Polar Dip on Jan. 1, so the lake has been frozen for less than a week. Surface water temperature that day was measured at 35 degrees, parks official Lance Romo said.

Visual inspection of Lake Padden on Sunday showed ice near the shore was about 3 inches thick, too thin for people, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which offers this advice on its website: Stay off ice that’s 2 inches thick or less; 4 inches is OK for ice fishing or activities on foot, 5 inches for snowmobile or ATV.

“White ice or ‘snow ice’ is only about half as strong as new clear ice,” the Minnesota DNR warns. “Ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water; it can be 2 feet thick in one place and 1 inch thick a few yards away. Check the ice at least every 150 feet.”

For solid clear or blue-black ice on small ponds and lakes, the Old Farmers Almanac recommends a minimum of 3 inches for a single person and 4 inches of thickness for groups of people in a single file.

Robert Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty