AUGUSTA — Melanie Scott has some fairly simple advice for staying warm when the temperature plummets to dangerous levels.

“Warm head, warm hands, warm feet,” Scott said. “If they were warm, I was OK.”

She would know. For six and a half years, Scott was homeless in Portland, and staying warm in the winter could be a struggle.

Like people across central Maine, Scott is has been finding ways to cope with the record-breaking cold temperature that has blanketed the region since the end of December.

Across the state, temperature records are expected to shatter Saturday night as the polar vortex draws more frigid air into Maine.

Chris Kimble, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, said it’s unusual for such cold temperature to arrive so early in the winter. It generally comes in January and February.

Since the end of December, the long string of frigid weather has stressed those whose work requires them to be outside, including public safety workers, and the systems that people rely on to keep themselves and their homes warm.

When Scott first moved to Augusta a little more than two years ago, she stayed in a rooming house. Even though her room was heated, she spent cold days under a blanket to stay warm.

Last year, she moved into an apartment with the help of Bridging the Gap, the parent organization that operates the Warming Center, Addie’s Attic and the Everyday Basics Essentials Pantry in the parish hall of the former St. Mark’s Church, just off Pleasant Street.

The concern of Scott and anyone who has to be outside is hypothermia, which occurs when the amount of cold a person is exposed to overwhelms the body’s ability to produce heat.

“I lost some friends to hypothermia,” Scott said. “It’s a scary thing for a lot of people.”

The effect of exposure to extreme cold is not well understood.

For one thing, it’s hard to study. Subjecting humans to extreme cold to study how it affects them is not considered ethical.

“There aren’t a lot of guidelines, and there’s not a lot of evidence available,” CK Raynes Wilder said. “It’s hard to study.”

Raynes Wilder, an emergency medicine physician who works at MaineGeneral Medical Center, completed a fellowship research project on hypothermia.

Even so, several critical things are known.

It can happen quickly, Raynes Wilder said, if someone out ice fishing falls through the ice and into the frigid water below.

It can also happen slowly to someone who has been too cold for too long. That category includes the very young and the very old who might be living in a place with insufficient heat and insufficient food.

The indications that a person is starting to suffer from mild hypothermia include a body temperature between 90 degrees and 96 degrees, and shivering — the body’s attempt to keep warm, she said,

“You’ll see some changes in how they behave. They might appear mildly intoxicated because the brain is not warm enough. They might be a little irritable, lethargic or withdrawn, and their fine motor coordination is not as great,” she said.

The reason is the body is trying to protect its core and the brain.

“That’s a person we can treat really well. We can give them something easily digestible to eat, some warm fluids and remove them from a cold environment, and they do great,” Raynes Wilder said.

When the body temperature drops below 90 degrees and person is no longer able to shiver, that’s an emergency situation, and a person exhibiting those signs requires immediate medical attention.

“You don’t have to be on Mount Everest,” said Jason Farris, battalion chief for Augusta Fire and Rescue. “You could be in your garage.”

Augusta Fire and Rescue has received only a couple of medical calls about people who are in distress from the cold.

“They are slip-and-falls that become hypothermic,” Farris said. These are not people who have gotten lost in the woods; rather, they might have fallen in their driveway and aren’t able to get up, and prolonged contact with the cold ground can sap body heat relatively quickly.

Farris recommends checking on the elderly and disabled every few hours and for those people to carry cellphones or medical alert devices so they can let people know if they get into trouble.

“We’re not dealing with homeless people as much as when the weather is warmer,” he said. “I hope the reason is that they have found a place for shelter.”

The weather pattern that has brought the early cold also has brought some new entries in the record books.

On average, Kimble said, the Augusta area tallies temperature below zero on 11 days in the course of a winter and two days when the temperature is minus 10 or below.

So far this season, he said, the temperature has been minus 10 or colder on three days. The record is nine days, set in the winter of 1967-68.

Not including Saturday or Sunday, central Maine has racked up nine days of subzero weather so far this year. The record, 26 days, was set in 1993-94, followed closely by the 2014-15 winter season, which brought 25 subzero days.

For Scott, the danger of the frigid days is kept at bay by the Warming Center, which is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and where she volunteers three days a week. She came across the center last year, after having spent time at Lithgow Public Library to stay warm.

At the Warming Center, she was able to replace her sneakers with warm boots, and she was able to get a blanket to help her stay warm at home.

Even though the weather pattern that has kept Maine so cold for days will shift this week and bring warmer temperature, no one is expecting that it won’t return.

Scott reached for a flyer advertising the drive for supplies to support Bridging the Gap programs scheduled as part of the National Day of Service. Bridging the Gap is seeking warm winter layers, boots, socks, toiletries and diapers as well as coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar and creamer.

“This is a good place to come,” she said. “You don’t have to not have a home to come here.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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