North Jersey residents have seen a sharp change in weather over the past two weeks, with several days of sub-freezing temperatures over Christmas giving way to a stretch of days reaching into the 60s.
The extreme changes proved fatal when two Passaic County men fell through the ice while fishing at Splitrock Reservoir in northern Morris County last weekend. The deaths highlighted the dangers associated with recreational activities on frozen bodies of water.
“These weather changes give many a false sense of security when there is ice,” the Boonton Fire Department warned in a Facebook post Monday, a day after the body of the second victim was recovered from the reservoir in the border between Rockaway and Kinnelon.
The department had already been scheduled to host a training weekend Jan. 20-22, with fire safety company Rescue Products International offering a 20-hour program to certify participants in ice rescue techniques.
Many other agencies offer advice on how to avoid dangerous situations on frozen lakes, with the caveat that no ice can be assumed to be safe ice.
“It’s important to recognize that the ice will never be completely safe,” Holly Odgers, director of communications for the Lake Hopatcong Foundation, said in a news release on the agency’s website. “Unseen or unknown factors can make seemingly safe ice suddenly dangerous. No activity conducted on ice on bodies of water is ever without risk.”
But local officials said citizens can safely enjoy their time on the ice if they recognize these risks and take the proper precautions.
Many experts say the ice should be at least 4 inches thick for an individual to walk on and 8 to 12 inches deep for groups, according to the Boonton Fire Department. But lakes and ponds don’t freeze evenly, so ice that’s safe in one area may not be safe in another nearby location.
“If you’re out there just stepping on the ice and the ice is bending and you’ve got water coming up, the next step in the bending is to go swimming,” said Keith Griglak, a senior biologist with the New Jersey Department of the Environment. Protection, in a 2021 webinar.
Factors such as air temperature and ice color can determine whether it’s safe, Griglak explained. Light or black ice is generally found early in the winter season, while white ice occurs when the snow melts and refreezes and is generally not as strong.
“Four inches of that black ice is fine,” Griglak said. “White ice, it would probably go a little higher; wait until it’s 5 or 6 inches before you think it’s safe.”
White ice often contains a layer of water, an indication that the ice will soon be unsafe unless the temperature drops. Clear ice can have cracks on top, which Griglak said is a positive sign that more water is freezing and expanding.
“If you’re out there on a very cold day, 15 degrees, you actually hear it echoing down the lake as cracks are forming,” he said. “It’s actually a great sound to hear. If you hear it, you know the ice is just getting bigger and better.”
Ice hikers can also take precautions by carrying the proper safety tools, such as a steel rod, basically a long steel rod, to check thickness and a launch rope to rescue anyone who falls into the water .
NJDEP Conservation Officer Shannon Martiak highlighted the importance of ice picks, pointy tools a person can use to attach themselves to ice if they fall, in a 2020 ice safety training video.
“If you fall through the ice, the hardest part is getting your body weight on top of that ice surface,” Martiak said. “A $12 piece of equipment could really mean the difference between life and death.”
Other tips to keep in mind after falling through the ice, according to the Boonton Fire Department, are to stay calm and use powerful kicks to get out of the water. Once outside, the person should remain horizontal to distribute weight across the ice and remove wet clothing as quickly as possible.
Above all, those who want to have fun on the ice are asked to exercise common sense and stay out if there is any doubt about their safety. The wrong decision will affect more than just the person on the ice, the Boonton department warned.
“Thin ice not only puts you in danger, it also puts everyone trying to help/rescue you in danger,” his post read. “Please stay off the ice.”