Stacey Curtis was working from her home office late last month when she suddenly heard a rumble.
The sound resembled a big truck passing by her home, Curtis recalled. But when she looked outside, she observed a strange sort of mist — snow and water — rising to the pine trees. The roof of she and her husband’s pole barn had completely caved in.
“I never would’ve thought something like that would happen,” said Curtis, who has owned her Altoona residence for 20 years. “I was like ‘Oh my God, it’s gone. It was so fast.”
The Curtis family’s situation isn’t unique this year amid record-breaking snowfall. In recent weeks, regional emergency responders and city and county officials have responded to reports of barns, churches, businesses, sheds and other structures suffering roof collapses due to the buildup of snow and water as it melts.
‘Not a normal year’
After another round of snow this weekend, roof collapses continue to plague the area.
Jon Schultz, deputy chief of operations and emergency medical services for the Eau Claire Fire Department, said they’ve responded to four roof collapses so far this year, two of which occurred at businesses on Sunday.
A snow-covered canopy over gas pumps collapsed at Mega Holiday, 2230 Birch St., early Sunday afternoon, injuring one. Earlier that day, the roof collapsed at A to Z Towing at 2600 Mercantile Drive.
“It’s really not a normal year,” Schultz said, noting several of those incidents were caused by vents on the roof getting covered by snow which in turn elevated levels of gas and carbon monoxide inside the buildings.
Rod Eslinger, director of Eau Claire County planning and development, said the county had received report of roof collapses at five barns and six machine sheds so far this year. As of late Monday afternoon, the county had received reports of three more collapses.
But because property owners aren’t required to report these instances to the county, Eslinger said there are likely “a lot more” that the county isn’t yet aware of.
Battalion Chief John Entorf of the Menomonie Fire Department said they’ve responded to a roof collapsing at Chippewa Valley Warehouse, but agreed there are likely many more cases they were never notified about. The reason the department heard about that instance, Entorf said, is because an automatic alarm went off when the collapse broke the sprinkler system.
“There’s really not a lot for us to do,” Entorf said.
On the farm
Problems with roofs collapsing has proven challenging for many farmers across the region.
Mark Hagedorn, UW-Extension agriculture agent in Eau Claire County, said he was aware of about 10 roof collapses, which have caused more than 100 livestock to be injured or killed.
And clearing snow off of roofs has proven dangerous, Hagedorn said, referencing James Volbrecht, 53, who died Feb. 22 when he fell through a skylight while removing snow from the roof of his town of Union barn.
“It seems like we keep getting curve balls thrown at us,” Hagedorn said, referring to great struggles Wisconsin farmers have faced in the last several years. “But I guess we just play the cards we’re dealt, as lots of farmers have been telling me.”
In Chippewa County, UW-Extension agriculture agent Jerry Clark said he’s heard around a dozen reports of collapsed roofs. And, he hears about two to three more every time he’s interacting with a different group of farmers, who have all been trying to help one another amid tough times.
“There’s been a lot of pulling together of the farm community,” he said.
Katie Wantoch, UW-Extension agriculture agent in Dunn County, said she’s heard about more than 20 instances of roofs collapsing in the area. Still, she’s trying to remain optimistic.
“One good thing if we try to look on the bright side is that we’ll have enough moisture for the soil when spring does arrive,” Wantoch said.
Though winter is nearing its end, Schultz remains concerned about further roof collapses — especially with rain forecasted the rest of this week.
National Weather Service meteorologist Brent Hewett said light rain will move into the Eau Claire area between 1 and 3 p.m., and bouts of rain will continue through Thursday evening. Hewett said a flood watch for the Eau Claire area will go into effect at 1 p.m. Wednesday, due to concerns of the amount of snow covering drains on streets and sidewalks.
Lingering snow will cause concerns for roofs, Schultz said.
“That snow is going to act like a sponge and it’s not going to allow water to drain off,” Schultz said, noting homeowners should stay on top of removing snow from their roofs, ideally through a reputable company that specializes in the service.
But even in the case someone seeks professional help with clearing snow, collapses can’t always be prevented.
Days before her Altoona barn’s roof collapsed, Curtis said she and her husband noticed how much snow was accumulating on it — especially after their neighbors across the street lost their barn.
So Curtis’ husband set to clearing off the roof. But the first layer coating the roof was actually ice, causing him to slide off the roof.
“He said ‘I’m done, I’m not risking it more,’” Curtis said.
They brought a contractor out to their property, who told them the roof definitely had too much snow, and that a professional company with a lift service should come to alleviate that weight.
But because of current waiting lists, the collapsed before anyone was able to do that.
Because an insurance adjuster has not yet been to the house, Curtis doesn’t yet know a damage estimate. The barn was largely used for storage of outdoor furniture, her sons’ motorcycles, lawn mowers and other items.
“Hopefully it can be rebuilt and hopefully we have the right insurance in place,” Curtis said.