Utah braces for lengthy cold spell
State homeless shelters invite everyone inside; air quality goes down and the risk of fires increases as people try to stay warm.
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The National Weather Service said it was 29 degrees below zero in Wellington, making the coal-mining town one of, if not the coldest in Utah early Monday morning. Dale Jensen begs to differ.

"I know it's been cold, all right. But at six o'clock this morning it was at 30 below," the 87-year-old retired automotive mechanic said, citing his outdoor thermometer. "But I stay inside, so it doesn't bother me much."

Jensen is no stranger to bitterly cold weather. He is a lifelong resident of his Carbon County town of 1,700, nestled in east-central Utah's mountainous coal-mining region where winters are typically harsh.

"I keep it pretty warm inside the house and we don't have any problems with frozen pipes because we're pretty well insulated," Jensen said.

Monday morning's low temperatures were nearly as cold elsewhere. Southern Utah's Bryce Canyon and Thistle, in Utah County, recorded -27 degrees overnight, tied for being second coldest. As of 6 a.m. Monday, Alta shivered at -15, Moab and Cedar City came in at -13, Logan dipped to -12, Milford -10, Price -7, Ogden -4, Layton -3, and Salt Lake City International Airport recorded a -2, matching a Jan. 22, 2008 low; Provo, Wendover and West Jordan all came in at zeroes.

That sub-zero trend was to continue Tuesday and well into the coming weekend, the National Weather Service warned.

Meanwhile, advocates for Salt Lake City's homeless community have this message for the people they serve: come inside, no one will be turned away.

"Our numbers were high for this cold stretch and they climbed slightly. Our ultimate concern is making sure we get everyone in," said Matt Minkevitch, executive director for the Road Home homeless shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St.

On Sunday night, 1,107 individuals sought refuge from the elements in Road Home facilities.

All 56 beds of the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake's emergency dorm at 463 S. 400 West were full Sunday night, with 63 men sleeping on bedrolls on the facility's carpeted overflow floor, said Executive Director Chris Croswhite.

"The record number we've had sleeping on the overflow floor was 81. That was two winters ago," Croswhite said.

The cold spell was being blamed for at least two residential fires Sunday, prompting fire authorities to warn Utahns to take extra care in the ways they try to stay warm.

In Cottonwood Heights, firefighters said a man trying to thaw a frozen faucet ignited a blaze that burned the rear wall of his home before Unified Fire Department crews doused it. Another fire left four residents of a St. George house trailer homeless. Investigators said the residents were using an outdoor cooking device inside the trailer, apparently to keep warm as temperatures went below freezing.

The two largest utility companies in the Salt Lake Valley are reporting very little impact to their operations at this point, but one says it might set a record for energy usage.

A representative for natural gas provider Questar Corp. said it hasn't had any issues with its systems but that on Monday the company was anticipating it might be delivering a record volume of natural gas to its customers.

At Rocky Mountain Power, winter cold generally poses fewer issues than summer heat.

"We're a summer-peaking company, when our usage is highest," said spokesman Dave Eskelsen. "Severe weather of any kind can create an outage, more brittle lines because of the cold, that sort of thing, but we've had few outages over the past several days."

He credited the lightweight snow produced by the most recent storm and the utility's tree-trimming program, which it has been emphasizing with customers for several years. He noted that most of the power outages reported in recent days were caused by cars sliding on the snow and ice into utility poles.

Although machines power energy systems, it's humans against the elements when it comes to working such jobs as construction in the winter.

Crews generally work through the cold, said Layton Construction's Alan D. Rindlisbacher, but allowances are made to ensure that safety and worker health are priorities.

"We work diligently to prepare and deal with the cold," said the director of corporate marketing of the Sandy-based company. "Safety is always the number one factor. Wind chill or slick iron could take us off a job, but we try to mitigate conditions by bundling up people and work sites, and keep on working."

Rindlisbacher added that most job sites provide a place for workers to warm up during periodic breaks. He also noted that "one of our folks said that if we sent people home, they would just go skiing."

And apparently the weekend cold that carried into Monday didn't keep too many skiers of the slopes.

"We had some new snow, not as much as the valleys, but it snowed, and that helped our numbers," said Emily Moench, communications manager at Snowbird.

Susie English, director of communications for Ski Utah, the marketing arm for the state's 14 resorts, said she thought blue-bird skies over the weekend and a promotional discount ticket program for beginner snowboarders helped counter the cold.

However, that goes only so far, she acknowledged, noting that Brighton canceled its night skiing on Monday because of the frigid temperatures.

Down in the valley, frozen pipes and worries about carbon monoxide poisoning, due to poorly maintained or ventilated furnaces and water heaters, were keeping Salt Lake City-based Neerings Plumbing, Heating and Air crews busy.

Neerings owner Troy Neerings said the kinds of problems people face in sub-zero temperatures can often be prevented with common sense and attention to regular maintenance and safety inspections.

"The fundamental problem we find with pipes freezing, especially in older homes, is [cold air] leaking in. Often that occurs between the foundation walls and framing where the wood meets the concrete," Neerings said. "People sometimes finish their basements without proper insulation where pipes come in through a wall from the outside."

Simply forgetting to detach hoses from outside faucets can cause major problems when ice from water inside the hose backs up and splits pipes inside the home. Also, failure to vent fresh air into amechanical room, where the furnace and water heater typically are located, can affect combustion efficiency and result in soot buildup and increase risks for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Properly maintaining a furnace or water heater, Neerings said, is "not unlike caring for your car. Furnaces and air conditioning, which today are often the same [equipment], are basically on 24/7 most of the year.

"With a car, you do emissions checks every year. With a furnace, we call that 'combustion analysis,' which makes sure the ignition process is safe," Neerings added.

He suggests having residential furnaces cleaned and checked twice a year, while commercial heating systems should be inspected quarterly.

Monday's cold caused headaches for Utah Transit Authority, too. UTA reported some delays on its TRAX light rail trains as the cold weather resulted in some doors on passenger cars freezing shut early Monday morning. Train operators and maintenance workers had to free them to proceed.

And out of the 228 buses at the Jordan School District Bus Yard, 29 of them wouldn't start Monday morning, causing about 3,000 children to be late for school, according to district spokesperson Sandra Riesgraf. Even though the buses are equipped with engine block heaters, the diesel fuel is turning to a gel, and batteries and air compression systems are failing in the extreme conditions, she said.

The Utah Department of Transportation issued an advisory warning motorists across northern Utah, and in all of the state's mountain passes, to exercise extra care on snow- and ice-covered highways.

Without fresh storms, all signs pointed to deteriorating air quality conditions ahead. Air-monitoring director Bo Call said "Red," no burn conditions could begin as early as Tuesday.

"The [air-pollution] values are only increasing," he said. We don't see any end in sight. We don't see anything in the next seven to 10 days to wash it out."

Meanwhile, a computer analysis at Utah State University echoed that assessment. Based in part on trends from the western Pacific, the modeling shows two inversions are likely in the next month or so, said Simon Wang

The computer analysis also suggests there is a chance of another inversion-pollution event of four days or longer in the beginning of February.

Utah Division of Air Quality issued mandatory no-burn advisories for Tuesday for Salt Lake, Davis, Utah and Davis counties, meaning use of wood and coal-burning stoves and fireplaces is prohibited. Residents in Weber, Box Elder, Tooele, Duchesne and Uintah counties are asked not to use coal and wood-burning stoves.

The Utah Avalanche Center, meantime, rated the mountains above Salt Lake City, Ogden, Logan and Provo and in the Skyline and Moab districts at "considerable" risk for dangerous snow slides on Tuesday. The remainder of the state fell under the "moderate" risk category.

Tribune staffers Steve Oberbeck, Michael Limon, Cathy McKitrick and Judy Fahys contributed to this story.

remims@sltrib.com Cold Weather Fire Safety Tips

Be sure every level of your home has a working smoke and/or carbon monoxide alarm. Check alarms and clean them regularly, and swap out batteries at least twice a year.

Plan and practice a home escape plan with your family.

Keep your furnace inspected, regularly change filters, and be sure all emergency furnace controls and shutoffs are in good working order.

Check flue pipes and seams for soot or cracks.

Make sure any chimneys are solid, without loose or cracked bricks. Have chimneys inspected and cleaned annually.

Keep trash and combustible materials clear of any heating system.

Avoid using electrical space heaters in bathrooms or other areas where they could come into contact with water.

Never try to thaw frozen water pipes with a blow torch or other open flame. Instead, use hot water or a hand-held hair dryer for thawing.

Never use an oven or range as a supplemental heating device.

If you use an electrical space heater, be careful not to overload the circuit, and only use extension cords rated for the proper amp load.

Never burn charcoal indoors. Charcoal can give off lethal levels of carbon monoxide.

If you use a fireplace, be sure it is out when you go to bed; never close the fireplace dampers with hot ashes in the fireplace, as a closed damper may cause the fire to heat up again and force toxic levels of carbon monoxide into the air.

Source: U.S. Fire Administration —

Utah's sub-zero temperatures

-29, Wellington

-27, Bryce Canyon

-13, Moab

-12, Logan

-10, Milford

-8, Alpine

-4, Ogden

-3, Layton

-2, Salt Lake International Airport

Source: National Weather Service