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Cold facts on ice safety

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Near-drowning spurs ranger to recommend precautions

By AJ Vicens

A Chatfield State Park ranger who rescued a fisherman who fell through the ice in early February says the incident calls to mind the precautions necessary for recreation on frozen water.

Michael Judd, the ranger, said in a statement that the fisherman had walked about 50 yards out onto the ice at Chatfield Reservoir, but the surface was unstable due to recent warm temperatures. The angler, who has not been identified, was not wearing a life jacket or any other personal flotation device, and was fishing alone.

"When the ice fisherman fell through the ice, a jogger heard him yelling," Judd said. "We never would have known that the man fell into the reservoir if the jogger had not been nearby."

Judd, who was the first to respond, has years of training in ice rescues, but this was his first time dealing with the real thing. Bystanders on the shore helped Judd secure a safety rope, and he then crawled out on the ice on his hands and knees to distribute his weight. He was then able to toss a rope to the fisherman.

"I was able to pull him out of the water, and the people on the shore used another safety rope to pull us both back to land," Judd said.

For people who ice fish, hunt waterfowl, ice skate and play on ice, the basics of ice safety can prevent a mistake from becoming fatal, according to Deb Frazier, a spokeswoman with Colorado State Parks.

Always assume that unsafe ice conditions can occur anywhere and that ice thickness varies from place to place. Four inches of ice will provide a margin of safety and is generally considered safe for ice fishing and ice skating. Snowmobiles and ATVs need at least 5 inches of thickness. The best advice of all is to stay off the ice when there is any question about thickness and conditions.

Signs of unsafe ice include ice of different colors; water on top of the ice; and cracks, pressure ridges, open water and bubbles. Also, beware of ice covered with snow. Sometimes the snow serves as insulation, keeping the ice from melting. Other times, the snow has the opposite effect, insulating the surface from freezing.

Safety tips when dealing with frozen lakes:

• Never go out on the ice alone. A friend can call for help if you fall in.

• Never attempt to walk onto ice to rescue someone, as you may fall in as well.

• Avoid alcoholic beverages, which increase the chances for hypothermia.

• Always wear a life jacket.

• Assemble and carry a personal safety kit, including an ice pick, rope and a whistle to call for help.

• Always keep dogs on a leash, and don't allow them to run out on the ice. If a dog falls through, go for help.

• Nobody can guarantee that ice is safe. The decision to go out onto the ice is personal and should be made after taking the precautions to reduce the risks.

• Reach-throw-go: If you can't reach a person from shore, throw them a rope or flotation device. If you still can't help the person quickly, go for help.

If you fall through the ice:

• Don't panic: Try to remain calm to conserve as much energy as possible. Try to get your arms onto the ice and kick as hard as you can with your feet to help lift you onto the ice, and then roll to safety.

• If you can't get out right away, do not swim — that will make you lose heat more quickly than if you remain still.

• Act slowly and deliberately to conserve heat. Expect a progressive decrease in your strength and ability to move. Make the harder maneuvers at the beginning, while you still can.

• Keep your upper body above water. Keep your head and upper body as far out of the water as reasonably possible to conserve body heat.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.