By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
After a comparatively warm period with highs nearing 30 degrees, north-central Montana is again bracing for extreme sub-zero temperatures.
Rick Dittmann of the National Weather Service office in Great Falls said a few inches of snow are expected when an Arctic front hits the area Wednesday.
"That's not really the story," he added. "The story's in the wind."
The National Weather Service is predicting a high of 24 below zero Thursday with lows Wednesday night of 34 below zero, Thursday of 33 below and Friday of 32 below.
Dittmann said temperatures will be relatively mild - tonight's low is predicted to be 4 degrees above zero - until the front hits and wind starts coming from the north.
"Then the temperatures will just plummet," he said.
The north wind will make the problem even worse, with wind chills - how the cold and wind feel on exposed skin, rather than the actual temperature - predicted to hit 60 degrees below zero Thursday.
At that temperature, exposed skin freezes in about five minutes, Dittmann said. People should cover as much skin as possible, he said: hands, face, everything.
Havre fire Capt. Todd Solomon said if people do have to be outside, they need to be careful.
"Bundle up in layers and keep that exposed skin down to a minimum and exposure time to a minimum," Solomon said. "It's just common sense, basically.
"The best thing to do is stay inside where it's warm and don't travel," he added.
He said parents need to make sure their children, especially if they have to wait for a bus, are properly dressed,
"You don't want the kids to be out there too long," he added.
Havre Public Schools district clerk Ric Floren said no change in school schedules or busing has been made yet, but the district is keeping its options open.
"We are monitoring it, literally, on an hourly basis," he said.
If the district decides the weather is becoming too dangerous, it might cancel out-of-town busing, cancel trips for extracurricular activities or possibly cancel school and reschedule a day or days to make up for it, Floren said.
He said if any of that happened, it probably would be decided Wednesday, before the worst of the wind and cold hits on Thursday.
"We'd try to give everybody as much heads-up notice as possible," he said.
Dittmann said people should avoid traveling in the extreme cold if possible, but if they have to travel they should be prepared.
He recommended that travelers let people at both ends of the trip know when they are leaving, when they should arrive and what route they are taking, "so they know where to send folks to go look for them."
The traveler also should have a good emergency kit prepared if there is a problem on the trip, he added.
Steve Don, automotive and diesel instructor at Montana State University-Northern, said the cold is hard on vehicles as well.
"Ideally, (people) should have them plugged in if at all possible," he said. "It's really tough on an engine to run when it's really cold."
He said the biggest problem for vehicles in extreme cold is lack of enough lubrication.
To prepare for cold weather, people should make sure their engine oil - as well as fluids like antifreeze and transmission and power steering fluids - are at the proper level and in good shape, Don said.
People also should make sure defrosters, windshield wipers and engine belts are working and in good condition, he added.
Tires also suffer in cold weather. Don said cold sometimes makes valves start to leak slightly, and he recommended having tires checked to make sure they are properly inflated and that valves are not leaking.
He said if people can't plug their cars in - he added that they don't need to be plugged in all night and that three or four hours is probably enough - starting the vehicle and letting it warm up for 10 to 15 minutes will help.
The driver should start the trip slowly to let the engine finish warming up, he added.
Solomon said warming a car up can lead to another problem: the buildup of carbon monoxide.
Letting a car run in a garage can create dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in the garage, and in a residence if it is an attached garage. He recommended taking a vehicle out of a garage after starting it to let it warm up.
The cold leads to other problems, he added.
The cold air, which tries to sink to ground level, can push emissions back into vents. That can cause a dangerous buildup in the home. Vents also can freeze over, Solomon said.
The freezing over of water heater or furnace vents can lead to carbon monoxide buildup, and frozen sewer vents can lead to methane buildup.
"If we get a (methane) gas smell, the first thing we do is go to the roof and make sure it's adequately vented," he said.
Carbon monoxide has no odor, and he recommended that all homes have a carbon monoxide detector.
Hill County Extension agent Joe Broesder said the cold can be hard on animals and some plants as well, although he said the recent cold has acclimated most plants to the weather.
Trees with smooth bark, especially dark smooth bark, are particularly vulnerable. Broesder said the sun can warm the bark. Then, when the sun goes down, rapid cooling can cause the bark to split.
He recommended wrapping smooth-bark trees to prevent damage.
Animals also need protection, primarily a dry place out of the wind. Broesder said outdoor dogs should have access to some kind of a shelter with a low ceiling that can trap their body heat.
Adding a flap over the door, like tacking an old rug, can help trap more heat, he said.
The cold also gives problems to ag operators with livestock, he said. Those animals need some kind of shelter, and giving them some kind of bedding, like straw, helps.
"The cold presents a challenge for everyone. Just getting equipment started to take care of the animals can be a challenge," Broesder said.
On the Net: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Emergency Preparedness & Response: Extreme Cold: www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/guide.asp
National Weather Service: Winter Weather Safety and Awareness: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/winter/index.shtml