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Dangerous cold hitting the region

Authorities are reminding people to be cautious as the coldest temperatures in five years hit the Chippewa Valley this week,

“We’re looking at some significant cold, of 72 hours at least,” said meteorologist Tyler Hasenstein from the National Weather Service. “The coldest will be Wednesday, when temperatures hit -25 to -30, but the wind chills will make it feel -45 to -55.”

While it should be similar temperatures on Thursday, the wind won’t be as strong, Hasenstein said.

The cold weather is part of the system that led to Monday’s snowfall of about 7½ inches in Eau Claire.

“It’s a cold, polar vortex air that usually stays in northern Canada,” he said.

However, the cold weather will leave by late Friday, and temperatures should reach the upper 20s or lower 30s on Saturday, Hasenstein said.

Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, said that 38 people died from exposure to extreme cold in Wisconsin in the 2017-18 winter season. She reminded people to dress in layers, making sure their fingers and faces are covered, and also to check on vulnerable people like elderly or those incapable of making good personal decisions.

“The first thing to do is stay indoors if you possibly can,” Giese said.

Giese also cautioned people to not use their ovens or propane heaters as a secondary heat source in their homes, saying that carbon monoxide is a serious danger.

“The risks are enormous,” Giese said. “People need to be very careful of that.”

Giese also cautioned people that using drugs or alcohol is an especially bad idea this week.

“Any substance abuse with this type of weather is really dangerous,” Giese said. “They stay outside longer because they don’t realize the risks.”

Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk reminded people to be cautious on the roads as well.

“Make sure you have the necessities with you: a charged cell phone, blankets, and some snacks. And drive appropriately,” Kowalczyk said. “If you go in the ditch, stay with the vehicle. Someone always sees it. If you leave the vehicle, we have no idea where you went.”

Kowalczyk also recommends making sure that snow is removed from the vehicle, and to have new wipers and tires.

Only a handful of the zoo animals in Irvine Park will be outside this week, said Chippewa Falls parks director Dick Hebert, as the six bison, two elk and two owls will be outside all the time.

“People do like to see the animals in the winter, but people aren’t walking through the park this week because it will be so cold,” Hebert said.

In general, the hyenas come inside when the temperatures drop into the 20s, and the tigers come inside when the temperature is 10-20 degrees, he said.

“The tigers, they like to be outside, so we might let them out for a bit,” Hebert said. “The owls are outside, because they have a heated perch.”

The animals are monitored closely, he added.

“They are burning a lot of calories, so we give them a little more food,” Hebert said.

In 2017, a new barn facility was constructed for the Watusi (African) cows, but those animals leave the park in the fall, before snow falls. The bison, who are in the adjacent exhibit, don’t have a barn building. Hebert said it is among his goals to get them a building as well.

“It’s better for them to be outside,” Hebert said of the bison. “One of the things they do to keep warm is move. They also get along the cliff to stay out of the wind.”

In the 1980s, the zoo had a zebra that refused to come in from the cold and wound up dying.

Monday snowfall excites cross country skiers

Of the last 44 years that Bill Kryshak of Menomonie has been cross-country skiing, this year is the longest he recalls waiting for enough snow to blanket the region for a trip out to the trails.

In fact, Kryshak, who as president of Friends of the Red Cedar Trail and Hoffman Hills helps groom the trails every year, has not gotten out once this year to either ski or groom.

But after snow pelted the Chippewa Valley Sunday into Monday, Kryshak and many other Chippewa Valley winter sport enthusiasts are thrilled to — finally — see a light at the end of that tunnel.

“It’s been a tough winter,” Kryshak said, chuckling. “As soon as I get done at work today, we’ll be heading out to the trails and packing down the snow. We’ll see what we have — at the least, it’s got to be better than before.”

As of Monday afternoon, National Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Hasenstein said the Eau Claire area received about 7½ inches of snow, noting he didn’t expect more snow until at least Saturday due to the record cold weather blowing into the region for the next few days.

Though Kryshak doesn’t expect Red Cedar Trail will be completely groomed for skiing until the end of the week due to the incoming dangerous cold, Josh Pederson, director of the Eau Claire County Parks and Forest department, said workers were out grooming county trails at Tower Ridge Recreation Area, as well as Coon Fork and Lowes Creek county parks.

“We’re hoping traffic isn’t super heavy and things are able to firm up ... The forecast this week is going to allow us to hopefully get a decent base built up on these trails,” Pederson said. “I know that they’re itching to get out there.”

And that they are.

After a season that’s been dismal at best so far, Jerry Poling of Eau Claire said he’s anxiously anticipating taking full advantage of the snow once the region warms up a bit.

For the past two decades, Poling has kept a log of when and where he skis as he prepares for the American Birkebeiner marathon ski race, scheduled this year for the weekend of Feb. 21-24. This winter, he’s only gotten out 11 times.

In most years, that number would be about triple that figure by the time February is rolling around, Poling said, making this year especially difficult.

To top it off, only three or four of those occasions were on trails or lakes in the region. Otherwise, Poling has driven to trails up north, including the Birkie Trail between Cable and Hayward, or parks and recreation areas in the Twin Cities that make artificial snow.

But even in those areas, Poling described conditions as “good, but not great.”

“It’s been a challenging year for sure,” Poling said. “Most years I’m skiing about four times a week. But I do other things — I run and do other types of exercises to try to keep those muscle groups in shape. You just try to make it work.”

Dave Flanagan, co-owner of Spring Street Sports, also was excited by Monday’s snow, as business has been slow so far this season.

“Our business is tied to weather — when it snows in the winter, business is good. When it’s sunny in the summer, our business is also good,” Flanagan said. “It’s hard for people to get excited for winter activities when there isn’t any snow, so we’re excited to get people outside and enjoying winter now.”

But that same snow — and the plummeting temperatures — also caused dangerous road conditions throughout western Wisconsin.

As of about 2:45 p.m. Monday, the Eau Claire Police Department had responded to 9 crashes within city limits. But between 3 and 4 p.m. Monday, the department had already responded to four more.

“The roads are definitely starting to get more icy as the temperatures drop,” said Bridget Coit, public information officer with the department.

The Eau Claire Wisconsin State Patrol post reported 20 run offs and 17 crashes from Eau Claire to the Minnesota border since 6 a.m. Monday.

Steven Thompson, Eau Claire city street manager, said his team was busy plowing all day, and anticipated initial city plowing efforts would be complete by 11 p.m.

But that’s not to say the roads will be completely back to normal in the next few days. Thompson said plowing efforts will continue into Tuesday and alternate side parking will be in effect until 5 p.m. Wednesday.

“We’ve got a lot of it cleaned up,” Thompson said. “But you’ve got to remember — it’s going to take some time on our main streets to get them back to bare pavement with how cold it’s going to be. Be careful out there.”

Eau Claire school board considers superintendent's contract

The Eau Claire school board is scheduled to meet today to consider whether to retain district Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck, sources familiar with ongoing contract discussions said.

According to district records, board members have met five times in closed session since Nov. 19 to discuss Hardebeck’s contract status. Typically the board meets once or twice to discuss and evaluate the superintendent’s job performance as part of an annual evaluation. Contracts typically are granted for two- or one-year terms.

The board has until Thursday to let Hardebeck know whether it plans to renew her contract. If board members take no action by that date, her contract automatically would be extended for two years.

Hardebeck’s current contract with the district ends June 30.

The board will meet on the matter in closed session at 5 p.m. today.

Sources said Hardebeck is seeking a contract extension and some board members are balking at that request. She was hired as superintendent in August 2012.

School board President Joe Luginbill confirmed that the board continues to meet regarding Hardebeck’s job evaluation and contract. He declined to say whether the board is considering not renewing her contract or to answer questions about concerns raised by teachers and other district staff regarding what many have described as Hardebeck’s top-down management style they say has led to poor staff morale.

Other board members also have refused to comment on Hardebeck’s job status, and Hardebeck declined comment as well.

Concerns about such issues as staff development also have surfaced at recent school board meetings along with worries district staff have expressed regarding proposed changes to district employees’ retirement plan. Others have questioned funding shortfalls despite the passage of an $87.9 million referendum in November 2016 that included money for staff pay raises and building improvements.

That referendum was supposed to help retain teachers and prevent class sizes from growing, provide dollars for building upgrades and prevent deficits for the subsequent 15 years, district officials told residents in the lead-up to that vote. However, since then some class sizes have grown, many teachers said, and the district has a funding shortfall estimated at about $3 million this school year.

Still others have questioned curricular changes Hardebeck implemented that they say doesn’t meet the needs of some students.

This isn’t the first time board members have met multiple times to discuss Hardebeck’s job performance. In December 2015 — the last time Hardebeck’s job evaluation and contract status prompted multiple meetings — the board identified concerns about her management style and ordered her to work with a Madison-based job coach to improve her job performance.

In its evaluation of Hardebeck at that time, the board criticized her top-down management style and her unwillingness to share responsibilities. Board members cited what they saw as Hardebeck’s lack of trust in them and district staff, which in turn hindered morale in the district, they said.

The board at that time praised Hardebeck’s work in some areas, such as her efforts to boost academic rigor, her backing professional development opportunities for teachers and her promotion of Advanced Placement classes.

Relations between the board and Hardebeck appeared to improve subsequent to that evaluation, and the superintendent drew praise for helping garner voter approval for the 2016 referendum and for other initiatives.

However, in recent months teachers, administrators and other staff said they have expressed growing concerns about Hardebeck’s management style and have contacted school board members about those matters.

Too cold for beer deliveries

It will be so cold this week that beer trucks won’t be delivering some places.

General Beer Northwest in Chippewa Falls will limit its deliveries on Wednesday, said general manager Rod Fisher.

“Some stuff could freeze on trucks, especially rural routes,” Fisher said. “We are doing the bulk routes that go to the grocery stores.”

General Beer Northwest provides its products to a 14-county region, and many of those deliveries will be delayed, with some people working on Saturday.

“We’re watching (the weather), we’re planning for it,” Fisher said. “The trucks are heated, but the bays aren’t. It doesn’t take long in these elements (for beer to freeze), especially with trucks going 65 mph down the road.”

Park Ridge Distributing of Eau Claire won’t send any trucks out at all Wednesday, said area manager Ryan Modl.

“We’ll hold our trucks back for the safety of our employees and our product,” Modl said. “It’s just a little too hard on the equipment.”

Park Ridge Distributing primarily handles the Anheuser-Busch account, but they also distribute for more than 40 breweries, he said.

Modl said that many beers are permanently altered if they freeze, ruining the product.

“Sometimes the ingredients in the beer will actually separate, because there is yeast and malt,” he said.

Modl said he anticipates his team will add and combine routes on Thursday and Friday, to avoid adding a shift Saturday.

Fisher added that the cancellation of routes is also for safety of his drivers. In his 30 years of working in the industry, this is not the first time they’ve canceled deliveries because of cold weather, he added. Modl agreed that it has only been a handful of times his company also has halted deliveries because of the cold.