Severe Winter Weather

Introduction

Severe winter weather can have serious consequences – even in Lambton County, as was learned during the Snow Storm Emergency of 2010 when several hundred travelers became stranded on Highway #402 and other area roads.

In addition to making driving hazardous or impossible, winter storms can cause power outages, which will present dangers and challenges not encountered during warmer seasons. Please continue reading for tips on how you can prepare for severe winter weather.

Winter Weather - Photo of house snowed-in during 2010 snowstorm

Winter Storms

On December 20, 2013, freezing rain began falling across central and eastern Ontario. This ice storm eventually caused widespread power outages that affected approximately 600,000 hydro customers. The City of Toronto was particularly hard-hit, with 300,000 hydro customers affected. Some residents were without power for several days in below-average temperatures.

During an extended power outage caused by severe winter weather, keeping warm will be most people’s main concern. Gas barbecues and portable heaters should never be used indoors unless they are specifically designed for such use. These types of appliances give off carbon monoxide, which is invisible, odourless and deadly. For the same reason, do not use gas ovens for heating because they are not designed to operate safely with their doors open for long periods.

If you own a generator, be sure you know how to connect it and operate it safely. Generators must not be used indoors, or located within enclosed porches or attached garages. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for proper usage and placement.

Take time now – before an emergency – and learn how to shut off and drain your water supply (during extended power outages in below-freezing temperatures), and also how to safety turn on your heating system after a power outage.

If your heating system fails during extreme cold and you can’t leave your home to take shelter someplace warm, be sure to dress warmly and keep active. Make sure you have a collection of battery-powered or hand crank appliances such as radios and flash lights. Plan what you will do to stay warm.

Do not call 9-1-1 to obtain information about snowstorms or power outages unless you need police, fire or medical assistance. Contact your electrical service provider if you would like information about the situation. Often, callers can listen to a recorded message and leave information about the outage in their area. Listen to a local radio station or visit a credible website for information. During a major winter storm emergency you can call 2-1-1 for official information and instructions provided by local officials.

At Home

Extremely heavy snowfalls are not very frequent in this part of Ontario, but it isn’t uncommon to be “snowed in” for a day or two in parts of Lambton County. Therefore, you might want to consider stocking up on some emergency supplies such as ready-to-eat foods, battery-powered flashlights and radios and extra batteries in case of severe winter weather.

  • When freezing rain, heavy snow, blowing snow or a blizzard is forecast, listen to your radio or monitor weather websites to stay informed of the situation and hear updated forecasts.
  • When a winter storm hits, stay indoors.  If you must go outdoors, dress for the weather.  Outer clothing should be wind and water-repellent. The jacket should have a hood. Wear mittens – they are warmer than gloves.
  • In wide open areas, blowing snow can cause virtually zero visibility. You can easily lose your way walking even short distances or become exhausted walking in deep snow. In isolated or rural areas, do not try to walk long distances unless there is something to guide you or something to follow.
  • Ice from freezing rain accumulates on branches, power lines and buildings. If you must go outside when a significant accumulation of ice has already occurred, pay attention to branches or wires that could break, due to the weight of the ice, and fall on you. Do not touch power lines: a hanging power line could be live and you would run the risk of electrocution. Remember also that ice, branches or power lines can continue to break and fall for several hours after the end of a freezing rain storm.  Finally, if the power has been off for a long period, check the food in your refrigerator and freezer for spoilage.

Winter Driving

Winter Weather - Snow Squall Emergency County of LambtonVehicles stranded at Reece’s Corners during the 2010 Snow Squall Emergency.

Traffic collisions are the leading cause of death during winter storms.

Please think about that… when you travel after local police have advised drivers to stay off the roads, you are placing your life, the lives of your passengers and the lives of others in jeopardy.  When severe weather makes travel difficult, no matter how slippery the roads or how poor the visibility, you as a driver are still responsible for what happens when you are behind the wheel.

Sometimes, the safest decision is to change your travel plans and wait until weather conditions improve and snowplows have had a chance to clear the roads.  You can visit the “Track My Plow” website to see where plows are working on Provincial highways.  You can also track where the plows have been and even see photos from the cabs of some plows.

However, if you encounter bad weather or road conditions while driving, slow down and allow extra space between you and other vehicles.  Many winter collisions occur because drivers are going too fast for road conditions.  Make sure you can be seen by ensuring that your headlights and tail lights are on.  Some vehicles with day-time running headlights do not have full-time tail lights, so check your vehicle.

If you become stranded, it is often best to stay with your vehicle and wait for help.  Make sure you have an emergency supplies kit for these situations.

Remember – If there’s snow, drive slow!

Visit the Ministry of Transportation website for winter driving and road conditions.  For current weather forecasts, visit the Environment Canada website.

Download the Winter Driving Tips document for driving tips and a list of items you should include in your winter survival kit.

Prepare for Emergencies on the Road

Maintain your vehicle in good running order and have the condition of your tires and battery checked before winter weather hits.

It is also a good idea to keep your gas tank almost full during the winter and to have extra windshield washer fluid and antifreeze on hand.

Prepare two emergency kits for your vehicle – one to keep in the trunk and the other for the interior.

The trunk kit should include:

  • Shovel, sand, or salt, kitty litter or other traction aids
  • Tow chain and booster cables
  • Warning light or flares

The kit inside the vehicle:

  • Flashlight
  • Blanket
  • First-aid kit
  • Extra winter clothing, hats and boots
  • Matches, candles (in a deep can to warm hands) and an emergency food pack.  If you do not already have a cell phone, you may want to consider having one for emergencies.

Winter Travel Tips

  • Winter Weather - Closed Road Sign During Snow StormListen to local weather & road condition reports before setting out on a trip. If travelling long distances, call ahead to your destination for conditions. Visit the Environment Canada Weather Office site or telephone 519-464-5121 for local weather conditions. To obtain information about road conditions, call 511 from a cell phone, or visit the Ministry of Transportation website. If in doubt about weather and road conditions, do not travel.
  • Always dress appropriately for the season when travelling (even for local commuting), and bring along suitable clothing in case you have to walk or remain in your vehicle for a long period of time.
  • Obey traffic signs and road barricades – it is illegal to go around road closure signs and it is dangerous!
  • Carry vehicle emergency kits.
  • Always bring essential medications with you in case you become stranded.
  • Remember that even a thin layer of road ice, can make untreated roads extremely slippery. Driving is not recommended when freezing rain is forecast. Wait a few hours after the freezing rain ends before heading out, so that road maintenance crews have enough time to treat icy roads.

On the Road

If you must travel during severe winter weather or a storm, do so during the day and let someone know your route and arrival time.

If your car gets stuck in a blizzard or snowstorm, remain calm and stay in your car.  Allow fresh air into your car by opening the window slightly on the sheltered side away from the wind. You can run the car engine for about 10 minutes every half-hour if your exhaust system is in good condition and the tailpipe(s) is not blocked by snow. Check the exhaust periodically to make sure it does not become blocked. (Remember: you can’t smell deadly carbon monoxide, but if you smell exhaust fumes, it is a sign of trouble.)

Finally, to keep your hands and feet warm, exercise them periodically. If you do try to shovel the snow from around your car, avoid over-exerting yourself. Keep watch for other traffic and searchers.

Emergency Detour Routes

Winter Weather - Emergency Detour Route Sign Winter Driving

London Line (County Road 22) is the designated Emergency Detour Route (EDR) for Highway #402 in Lambton County. Traffic is often diverted there following collisions on Highway #402. It should be noted that EDRs are not necessarily intended to address poor weather conditions. In Lambton County, the London Line EDR parallels the #402 within a couple of kilometres, so winter weather conditions affecting Highway #402 are likely affecting London Line. If warnings are issued about poor travelling conditions on Highway #402, London Line and other east-west routes will likely be just as bad or worse. Stay where you are and don’t travel if you don’t have to.

Winter Weater - Photo of boots on cracked ice

Ice Safety

Many fun outdoor activities can take place safely during cold winter weather, when ice has formed of sufficient thickness. Once temperatures begin to rise however, ice can deteriorate and lose thickness quickly.

Stay away from riverbanks, rivers and creeks in the spring; water flow is often faster, higher and colder. Any remaining ice in the spring is likely to be weak and ready to break up. Even thick ice is not necessarily safe – during spring melt, lines of impurities in the ice melt very quickly, creating weak spots.

Know The Ice

The colour of ice may be an indication of its strength. Generally:

  • Clear, blue ice is strongest.
  • White opaque (difficult to see through) or snow ice is half as strong as blue ice. Opaque ice is formed by wet snow freezing on the ice.
  • Grey ice is unsafe. The greyness indicates the presence of water.

Safe Ice Thickness

The following ice thicknesses may be used as a guideline to determine its safety for certain activities:

  • 15 cm is safe for walking or skating alone
  • 20 cm is safe for skating parties or games
  • 25 cm is safe for snowmobiles

Ice thickness is unpredictable and will vary from one location to another. For instance:

  • Fast flowing water in streams, creeks and rivers create thin, weak ice. Ice nSnoear shore is weaker because the buckling action of the lake or stream over the winter breaks and refreezes ice continually along the shore.
  • Straight, smooth flowing stretches are safer than river bends. River mouths are dangerous because the current weakens the ice and creates unsafe pockets.
  • A potential danger spot on lakes is an open area of water completely surrounded by ice. Winds will force water beneath the ice and erode it from below.
  • Water level fluctuations, that occurs in streams and rivers, can create thin ice. Ice can be ‘hanging’ with no support beneath when water levels drop.
  • A warm spell or thaw can degrade ice very quickly. Therefore, ice that was safe one day may be dangerous the next.
  • During the spring, under-cut ice and snow along riverbanks will thaw and may collapse when someone walks on it.
  • It is especially dangerous to fall through the ice of a fast flowing river, because the current can sweep you under the ice – even small ditches and culverts have fast flowing water in the spring.

If you fall through the ice:

  • Try not to panic. Call for help loudly and clearly.
  • Resist the urge to climb back out where you fell in. The ice is weak in this area.
  • Use the air trapped in your clothing to get into a floating position on your stomach and face the shore.
  • Slowly reach forward onto the ice – do not push down on it.
  • Kick your legs to slowly push your torso onto the ice.
  • Crawl on your stomach or roll away from the open area with your arms and legs spread out as far as possible to evenly distribute your body weight.
  • DO NOT stand up. Look for shore and make sure you’re going in the right direction.
  • Get medical help immediately.
  • If you can’t climb onto the ice, float in the water and continue calling for help.

Ice Rescue

Rescuing a person who has fallen through the ice is dangerous – even for equipped and trained emergency responders. The safest way to perform a rescue is from shore.  Instead of attempting to pull a victim out of the water, help them rescue themselves. Only an adult should attempt to physically rescue a victim who has fallen through the ice, because an adult is stronger than a child.  Even a small child can be very heavy when wearing soaked winter clothing – there are many sad instances of rescuers falling through the ice and perishing along with the initial victim.

If someone falls through the ice:

  • Call 9-1-1 for help.  Consider whether you can quickly get help from trained professionals (police, fire fighters or ambulance) or bystanders.
  • See if you can reach the person using a long pole or branch from shore – if so, lie down and extend the pole to the person.
  • If you absolutely must go onto ice, wear a personal floatation device and carry a long pole or branch to test the ice in front of you.
  • Bring something to reach or throw to the person (e.g. pole, weighted rope, line or tree branch) – lie down to distribute your weight and slowly crawl toward the hole.
  • Remaining low, extend or throw your emergency rescue device to the person. Have the person kick while you pull them out.

Following the rescue, SEEK MEDICAL HELP!  If the victim shows stiffness, slurred speech or is unconscious, they could be hypothermic – a loss of body core heat that can be fatal.

Winter Weather - Ice Safety - Image of instructions to climb out of water onto ice
Winter Weather - Ice Safety - Image of instructions how to exit vehicle sinking through ice
Image of instructions how to exit vehicle sinking through ice