AUGUSTA — A temporary respite from subzero temperature forecast to begin Wednesday may come as relief a week in the making, but officials are warning that the warm-up could result in more burst water pipes and calls to fire departments and heating firms.

Already, the cold is creating dangerous hardships at residences and businesses.

Chelsea resident Shirley Matson faced a rough start to the new year. Her relatively new furnace quit working on New Year’s Eve, and she awoke Monday to find it was 31 degrees inside her house. “My right foot was so cold I couldn’t feel it,” she said.

Then, when the furnace repairman arrived, he discovered water backing up in Matson’s cellar because a sump pump pipe had frozen. He managed to get the heat back on and thawed the pump.

Now Matson is dealing with off-and-on freezing of pipes that run along an exterior wall.

The Augusta Fire Department responded recently to two calls about burst sprinkler pipes at commercial structures — on Friday at Tractor Supply Co. on Civic Center Drive and on Sunday at the Inn at City Hall on Cony Street. Both times it was about pipes in the area of the entrances.

Battalion Chief Scott Dunbar said the sprinkler heads had burst and spread water at the Inn at City Hall on Cony Street, which has 31 assisted-living apartments. Once the department finishes its work, Dunbar said, the buildings’ staffs notify their own fire alarm companies and other services to arrange for repairs.

“We shut down the water to the sprinkler system and used high-pressure vacuums to vacuum up as much as we can to mitigate the damage,” Dunbar said.

He said firefighters had responded to about a half-dozen reports of burst pipes over the past week, as the temperature in central Maine plunged to 10 or 20 degrees below zero in some cases.

After the brief respite from the bitter cold Wednesday, Thursday’s forecast calls for a snowstorm that could bring near-blizzard conditions at times, according to a meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Gray.

“We’re going to have a significant storm passing just off shore,” Eric Schwibs said Tuesday. “The track should be close enough to provide 6 or more inches of snow Thursday afternoon and Thursday night.”

The storm will bring strong and gusty wind and limited visibility at times, making travel difficult, and it will be bitterly cold, he said. The storm will move out of the area overnight and the arctic air will return for the weekend, with highs once again hovering around zero.

“(Wednesday) is going to be balmy, with a temperature near 20 degrees,” Schwibs said, laughing.

Dunbar expects to see an increase in reports of broken water pipes as the weather warms in midweek.

“As the ice starts to thaw, the pressure builds behind it, and that’s usually when it will burst,” he said.

Miles Hafner, owner of Augusta Natural Gas, echoed that theory. On Monday evening, he said his six employees have been working almost nonstop, attending to homes where residents reported heating zones not working and/or burst pipes, particularly in domestic heat and water systems. “We fix the pipes and get them heat again,” he said. “I have an awesome team and they all worked all weekend, day and night, to meet the demand.”

He said the calls for help began Friday morning.

“We started having freeze-ups Friday, and now calls for busted pipes because they start to thaw,” Hafner said late Monday, adding that the pipe ruptures typically occur about two days after a deep freeze.

He offered a couple of the scenarios: “We’re seeing a lot of heat pumps or wood stoves or pellet stoves that people put too close to their thermostat. The thermostat doesn’t call for heat, and they’re nice and warm; but in the meantime in the basement they have a cold spot, and that’s freezing the pipes. We’re seeing a lot of drafty windows, too.”

Hafner offered some tips to try to ward off problems, saying, “When it gets this cold, make sure you run your boiler and make sure your heating zones are making heat daily.”

Hafner also noted that a number of people have run out of fuel because heating systems are running more frequently to keep homes warm.

“If you’re on auto fuel, be sure to check your gauges,” he said.

The American Red Cross offers advice on preventing frozen pipes and on thawing them safely if they do freeze.

The information says the most vulnerable pipes are those exposed to severe cold, such as water sprinkler lines and pipes in unheated interiors such as basements, attics, crawl spaces and areas where pipes are on exterior walls.

It recommends adding insulation around those pipes and possibly installing insulating pipe sleeves or heat tape on exposed water pipes. Newspapers, too, it says, can be used for some insulation. Keep cabinet doors open and, if necessary, allow cold water to drip from faucets.

The tips say to keep the heat set at 55 degrees or higher if you are leaving for an extended period.

To thaw the frozen pipes, residents can use an electric heating pad or hair dryer or towels soaked in hot water — and keep the water tap open.

The American Red Cross recommends calling a plumber if the area is inaccessible or the pipe refuses to thaw.

Staff writer Jason Pafundi contributed reporting.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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