Between closed schools, holiday gatherings, and the opening of Vilas County’s snowmobile trails last Friday, fire chief Tim Gebhardt expects an influx of people in St. Germain this week. He is also “very nervous” about the danger posed by thin ice on area lakes.
At a special meeting of the St. Germain Town Board last Wednesday, Gebhardt made a plea to supervisors and audience members alike.
“Anybody who rents snowmobiles or cabins, please ask (customers and guests) to stay off the ice this holiday season,” he said. “In the different places the ice has been checked, it’s six inches thick here, but only an inch and a half over here and the spots aren’t all that far away from each other. It’s all dependent on the currents, and each lake has its own characteristics.”
“And I’m not just talking to snowmobilers,” Gebhardt continued. “I’m talking to ice fishermen, people who like to hike, and everybody. They all need to be very conscious of the ice conditions. We’re going to have warmer weather heading into the holidays here, and the ice isn’t going to get any thicker. People need to be very aware of where they’re at. And the best advice would be to stay off the ice until we get a lot more cold nights.”
The chief said snowmobilers do merit a specific concern, though.
“Snowmobiles like to go out in the center of the lakes, and that’s going to be pushing it for us,” he said. “If someone’s 900 yards out on a lake, that’s going to be a long walk for us with the snow that’s there … It’s definitely going to be a challenge.”
At the meeting on Dec. 18, town board chairman Tom Christensen reminded those present the county’s snowmobile trails are only open on solid ground; not in the places where those trails cross water.
“None of the clubs and none of the businesses have marked those lakes yet,” Christensen said. “That’s the first rule of thumb if you’re a snowmobiler: if it’s not marked, you don’t go there.”
Gebhardt said ice-water rescues are particularly dangerous for fire department personnel.
“There is a risk factor for rescuers, too,” he said. “We put them in mustang suits or Gumby suits — the cold-weather suits — to go out and any of our personnel on the ice will need to be in a life jacket. We’ll need to rope each other off and be extremely cautious as we venture forth because we don’t know, either, where the ice is safe or unsafe underneath the snow. It definitely raises the risk factor and the manpower component for the fire and rescue responders. And it’s going to be labor-intensive because most likely, we will not be able to venture any equipment out onto the ice.”
He also pointed out a slower, more methodical response by the fire department means compounded problems for anyone in need of a rescue.
“There is a very short amount of time between when somebody goes in (the water) and when hypothermia sets in,” he said. “We have to try to move as quickly as we can, but inherently, the safety of our personnel is important and we can’t rush things. If I can’t get my snow machine to within 50 yards of someone out there in a soft spot, we’ll have to send people out on foot from the shore. There’s a time factor for the person who goes through, and then when you have poor ice, it slows the process down for getting rescued.”
“Time is of the essence in every ice-water rescue,” Gebhardt said. “Seconds count.”
When asked what message he’d like to see conveyed to the public on behalf of the fire department, Gebhardt said “Have a safe holiday and Christmas season.”
“Just be safe and think,” he said. “And when you talk to anyone, be sure to tell them the ice is not 100% safe. It may look real pretty — all nice and white — but beware: the ice is not safe.”