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Ice fishing conditions ideal, but first responders train for spring thaw

Late February thaws could play havoc with ice conditions on Maine lakes, but this year the ice remains solid, reinforced by recent cold temperatures, officials said.2-28-14-ice-rescue-1
"The ice fishing conditions have been about as good as they can be," said Cpl. John MacDonald with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's Warden Service.
The weekend forecast calls for highs in the 20s, with single-digit lows.
February's average monthlong temperature was 23 degrees, 2.2 degrees below normal, with back-to-back weekends (Feb. 8-9, Feb. 15-16) bringing below-normal temperatures.
Tuesdays have been particularly chilly, based on National Weather Service data for Portland. Two Tuesdays, Feb. 11 and 18, were 16 degrees and 14 degrees below normal, respectively, with average temperatures of 9 degrees and 12 degrees. Tuesday, Feb. 25 was 10 degrees below normal with an average of 18 degrees.
Wednesday came in 12 degrees below normal with an average temperature of 16 degrees, the National Weather Service reported.
Last year at this time, average temperatures hovered in the 30s with highs above 40.
This February has presented lulls in the deep freeze. Last week, highs reached 47 degrees on two days, Thursday, Feb. 20 and Sunday, Feb. 23.
The momentary warm snap complicated the efforts of Maine snowmobilers and others to access ice, according to Francis Brautigam, regional fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
"Prior to this weekend we had a number of reports of people being stuck when the snow conditions were less compacted, but it sounds as of this weekend ... it's making for pretty good travel conditions," Brautigam told The Daily Sun this week.
"We've got in excess of a foot of compacted, partially frozen snow, and sandwiched between that snow and the ice is a slush layer," he reported. "Snowmobiles are able to ride on top of the compact, crusted snow."
Still, the Maine Warden Service understands how fast conditions can change.
"As spring comes, people historically get into some trouble on the ice," MacDonald said.
In late March and early April, ice conditions "could be problematic," he said.
Last weekend, members of the Warden Service and other first responders conducted an exercise for "ice rescue preparation and deployment."
"With spring fast approaching, ice related emergencies are likely," the Warden Service reported about the Saturday exercise, held at Sebago Lake in Windham.
Game wardens and first responders from Gorham, Standish, Windham and Brunswick "experienced the capabilities of airboat operation and ice-water entry."
A report on the exercise continued, "The Maine Warden Service and Brunswick Police Department supplied airboats for the training. The ability of an airboat to navigate land, thin ice, and open water provides a vital piece of equipment in the event of an ice rescue situation. Additionally, game wardens received experience in ice water entry provided by Gorham, Standish, and Windham first responders. Familiarity with open water entry in winter in a controlled environment better prepares first responders in the event a life-saving situation arises. This training plays a critical role in the preparedness, deployment, and teamwork of all first responders to include local fire and rescue teams and law enforcement."
The Warden Service offers tips for safety on ice.
"Never guess the thickness of the ice — Check it! Check the ice in several different places using an auger or some other means to make a test hole and determine the thickness. Make several, beginning at the shore, and continuing as you go out. Check the ice with a partner, so if something does happen, someone is there to help you. If you are doing it alone, wear a lifejacket. If ice at the shoreline is cracked or squishy, stay off! Watch out for thin, clear or honeycombed ice. Dark snow and dark ice are other signs of weak spots. Avoid areas with currents, around bridges and pressure ridges. Wind and currents can break ice."
For more information on ice safety, visit http://www.maine.gov/ifw/warden_service/safety.html#ice.

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