‘Life threatening’ cold snap hits Fitchburg, rest of Wisconsin

Scott Girard

Some shoppers braved the cold last Monday to visit Target.

Burst pipes and closed schools were among the most severe effects of the bitter cold that hit Fitchburg last week.

After a couple of mild winters the last two years, dangerous cold returned to Wisconsin while most of the United States dealt with unseasonably cold temperatures.

High temperatures of 11 degrees below zero – with wind chills falling below minus-40 – prompted schools to be canceled Monday and Tuesday all over Fitchburg and city officials to prepare for weather emergencies. Temperatures dipped as low as minus-18 last Monday night.

The weather was projected to be the coldest air to hit the state in nearly two decades, according to the National Weather Services.

“This will be the coldest air we have experienced since the arctic blast in February of 1996,” the National Weather Service said in a wind chill warning Friday.

A winter weather advisory went into effect Friday, and blowing snow continued to be a factor through the week with sustained winds around 15 mph and gusts up to 30 mph.

The wind chill warning was lifted at noon Tuesday, but things didn't really warm up again until the weekend approached.

Frozen pipes

A Wednesday morning water pipe burst caused havoc for three businesses in the Hatchery Hill shopping complex.

A Fitchburg Police Department release said it received a call around 2:08 a.m. last Wednesday, Jan. 8. An apartment above the shopping complex, GNC, Home Town Pharmacy and Artful Escapes sustained the most damage, the release said.

Artful Escapes co-owner Arlene Welcher said there was “pretty expensive water damage,” though the cement floor helped simplify clean up.

Welcher also credited the fire department for getting the studio’s art out of the facility as quickly as they did, which she said prevented damage to the professional pieces displayed on the wall, though some pieces that were in storage were damaged.

While half of the ceiling tiles were missing, Welcher said she expected them to be open for scheduled classes by the weekend.

A GNC employee Thursday said he was not present when the damage was sustained, but he said the store was open.

Home Town Pharmacy announced on its Facebook page that it would remain open throughout the clean up process and would “make every effort to take care of our customers' needs.”

Schools closed

All three school districts Fitchburg residents attend closed both Monday and Tuesday. Verona Area School District superintendent Dean Gorrell said the was wind chill warning the standard for schools closing due to cold weather.

Gorrell said he could not recall the last time school had closed due to cold, guessing it was “six or seven years ago.”

Gov. Scott Walker considered ordering all schools closed Monday, but that was rendered unnecessary as districts closed on their own. Verona, in fact, had made the decision on its closing three days prior.

He also said Verona Area High School students might now fall short of the required instruction minutes, but the district has ways to fix that, including adding minutes at the end of the day or shortening lunch and passing times. Middle and elementary school students are still above the requirement, Gorrell said.

In Oregon, superintendent Brian Busler recalled a similar two-day closure in the 1990s from cold, and he said there will be three “snow” days to be made up in the district.

Madison Metropolitan School District schools also closed for both days.

City streets

Fitchburg public works director Paul Woodard said the cold, and this winter as a whole, didn’t change anything the department does from “business as usual.”

“No different than any other winter,” Woodard said, mentioning a water main break on New Year’s Day, though none occured during the early-week cold snap.

He said the department focused on jobs that could be done indoors during the cold, but was back out to chipping trees and other outside work by Wednesday.

Unified Newspaper Group reporter Mark Ignatowski contributed to this story.

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