With winter weather taking hold in the Helena area, many people are getting ready for ice fishing.
Canyon Ferry Lake is still largely free of ice but Lake Helena was mostly frozen over Tuesday.
Dozens of people were already out on the ice to spend the day fishing.
First responders say it’s always important to keep safety in mind whenever going on to the water.
“The big issue with the ice is you cannot see where the problem is,” Tri-Lakes Volunteer Fire Department chief Bob Drake said.
Drake said his department has already responded to two cases this year where someone fell through the ice.
Officials say ice can become thick enough to walk on after several days of single-digit temperatures but ice conditions can vary dramatically between two spots just ten feet apart.
It’s best to look for thick, clear ice, which likely formed at one time without melting and refreezing.
“Once you hit about three or four inches, you should be able to put one or two people out on it, drill a couple of holes, and do some fishing,” Skyler Pester, a volunteer with Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue, said. “If it’s any thinner than that, just stay away from it.”
Pester added ice will often be thinner around posts or other items breaking the surface of the water.
On lakes like Canyon Ferry, Hauser Lake, and Holter Lake, which are part of a river system, he said currents from the moving water make conditions more dangerous.
“That current is going to be churning the water up underneath the ice, it’s going to be creating thinner ice,” Pester said. “There are going to be thin spots, if not open water.”
When Tri-Lakes Volunteer Fire Department is called in after someone falls into the water, Drake said they will assess the situation and try to make sure no one else needs to be rescued.
However, they won’t be able to start an active rescue themselves.
“We don’t have the money, we don’t have the training, and we don’t have the people to be able to do it,” said Drake.
Instead, the department will call in an ice rescue team from either Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue or the Helena Fire Department.
That means it could be 30 minutes or more before rescuers are able to arrive.
“Obviously, we get there as fast as we possibly can, but still, that response time, if you’re sitting in a hole in the ice, is going to seem like an eternity,” Pester said.
Officials said people going ice fishing should consider bringing additional safety equipment like a life vest or a pair of ice spikes to help them climb back onto the ice if they fall.
If someone falls into the water and is able to get out, it’s still important to get them into a warm vehicle and get their wet clothes off as soon as possible.
“You’ve got to get them warm and you’ve got to get them dry as fast as you can to avoid hypothermia,” Pester said.
As a final warning, Pester added ice should be at least a foot thick before anyone attempts to drive a vehicle on it.
“We’ll come save you but we’re not going to dig your diesel pickup out of the lake,” he said.
Adam Strainer, a fisheries technician with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said FWP will start sending staff out to Helena-area reservoirs next month, to interview anglers and check on the ice conditions.
He said the department will publish updates at least once a week on conditions at Canyon Ferry, Hauser, and Holter.