Winter storms in the form of blizzards, heavy snows, freezing rain, or sleet can be serious hazards to people in Utah. The following information comes from various government and scientific publications:
Forecasts and Warnings
The first line of protection from winter storms is to keep posted on weather conditions and forecasts for your surrounding area through television and radio. A few hours of warning before a storm hits can be the key to avoiding being caught in it, or at least to be better prepared to cope with it. To take full advantage of weather forecasts and warnings, learn and understand these common terms:
A Heavy Snow Warning is issued for valley locations when 6 or more inches of snow is expected to fall within 12 hours, or when 9 or more inches of snow is expected in 24 hours. In mountain areas below 7,000 feet, a heavy snow warning is issued when 8 inches of snow is expected to fall in 12 hours, or 12 inches in 24 hours. For elevations above 7,000 feet, a heavy snow warning issued when 12 inches of snow is expected in 12 hours, or 18 inches in 24 hours.
During the first half of January 1993, heavy snow warnings were repeatedly issued for many areas of northern Utah. On January 11, the governor of Utah declared a State of Emergency in Salt Lake County and activated the Utah National Guard to assist in snow removal. During this month, the Salt Lake City International Airport recorded a record snowfall of 23.3" from a single storm (January 6-10), and a record monthly snowfall (for any month) of 50.3".
A Winter Storm Warning is issued when the combination of heavy snow and other severe winter weather elements are expected. Stay indoors because blowing and drifting snow, freezing rain and/or reduced visibility may cause roads to become slippery, blocked or impassable.
A Winter Storm Watch is issued when the severe winter conditions detailed above are possible within the next day or two.
A Blizzard Warning means snow and strong winds of 35 mph or more will combine to produce a blinding snow (with near zero visibility), deep drifts, and life-threatening temperatures below 20 degrees, causing a wind-chill lower than minus 35 degrees.
In Utah, blizzards have been responsible for the deaths of at least 21 people since 1950. In fact, in December 1990, a severe blizzard--with heavy snow, cold temperatures and 40 mph winds--contributed to a major traffic accident of a bus and two semi-trucks between Coalville and Evanston that killed seven people.
Winter Weather Advisories are issued for several hazards which can cause significant inconveniences, including: snow, blowing snow, wind-chill, freezing rain or freezing drizzle and sleet.
Freezing rain or freezing drizzle is forecast when rain is likely to freeze as soon as it strikes the ground, putting a coating of ice or glaze on the roads and everything else that is exposed. Even small accumulations of ice can cause a significant hazard.
Sleet is small particules of ice, usually mixed with rain. If enough sleet accumulates on the ground, it will make the roads slippery.
Precautions and Safety Rules
Here are some precautions you should take--and safety rules you should know--before severe winter weather develops or is forecast:
Be prepared for isolation at home. If you live in a rural area of Utah, make sure you could survive at home for a week or two in case a storm isolates you and makes it impossible for you to leave. Also:
Keep an adequate supply of heating fuel on hand and use it sparingly. Your regular supplies may be curtailed by storm conditions. If necessary, conserve fuel by keeping the house cooler than usual, or by "closing off" some rooms temporarily. Also have available some kind of emergency heating equipment and fuel so you can keep at least one room of your house warm enough to be livable. This can be a camp stove with fuel, or a supply of wood or coal for burning in a fireplace. If your furnace is controlled by a thermostat and your electricity is cut off by a storm, the furnace probably would not operate and you will need some kind of emergency heat source.
Stock an emergency supply of food and water, as well as emergency cooking equipment such as a camp stove. Some of this food should be of the type that does not require refrigeration or cooking.
Make sure you have a battery-powered radio and extra batteries on hand, so that if your electric power is cut off you can still hear weather forecasts, information, and advice broadcast by local authorities. Also, flashlights or lanterns would be needed.
Keep on hand the simple tools and equipment needed to fight a fire. Also, be certain that all family members know how to take precautions that would prevent a fire--particularly when the help of a fire department may not be readily available.
Caution: Know how to use your emergency heating and lighting equipment safely to prevent fire or dangerous fumes. Use only safety listed equipment. Never introduce a fuel into a unit not designed for that fuel. Proper ventilation is essential. Burning charcoal gives off deadly amounts of carbon monoxide!
Travel only if necessary. Avoid all unnecessary trips. If you must travel, use public transportation if possible. However, if you are forced to use your automobile for a trip of any distance, take these precautions.
Make sure your car is in good working condition, properly serviced and equipped with chains or snow tires. Regularly check your breaks, heater and windshield wipers.
Take another person with you if possible.
Maintain a full tank of gas.
Have emergency "winter storm supplies" in the car, such as a container of sand, shovel, windshield scraper, tow chain or rope, flashlight, and blankets or sleeping bags. It is also good to have with you heavy gloves or mittens, overshoes, extra woolen socks, and winter headgear to cover your head and face.
Travel by daylight and use major highways if you can. Keep the car radio turned on for weather information.
Drive with all possible caution. Don't try and save time by traveling faster than road and weather conditions permit.
Don't be daring or foolhardy. Stop, turn back, or seek help if conditions threaten that may test your ability or endurance, rather than risk being stalled, lost, or isolated. If you are caught in a blizzard, seek refuge immediately.
Keep calm if you get in trouble. If your car breaks down during a storm, or if you become stalled or lost, don't panic. Think the problem through, decide what's the safest and best thing to do, and then do it slowly and carefully. If you are on a well-traveled road, show a trouble signal. Set your directionally lights to flashing, raise the hood of your car, or hang a cloth from the radio aerial or a car window. Then stay in your car and wait for help to arrive. If you run the engine to keep warm, remember to partially open a window enough to provide ventilation that will protect you from carbon monoxide poisoning. Also, keep your car exhaust pipe and radiator clear of snow and ice, and move your arms and legs often to maintain good blood circulation.
Wherever you are, if there is no house or other source of help in sight, do not leave your car to search for assistance, as you may become confused and get lost.
Note: If you regularly commute long distances through metropolitan areas, you might want to consider purchasing a cellular phone--so that if you're stalled or in trouble you can contact help via your mobile phone.
Avoid overexertion. Every winter many unnecessary deaths occur because people--especially older persons, but younger ones as well--engage in more strenuous physical activity than their bodies can stand. Cold weather itself, without any physical exertion, puts an extra strain on your heart. If you add to this physical exercise, especially exercise that you are not accustomed to--such as shoveling snow, pushing an automobile, or even walking fast or far--you are risking a heart attack, a stroke, or damage to your body. In winter weather, and especially in winter storms, be aware of this danger and avoid overexertion.
Much of the information for this section originally appeared in the copyrighted book Utah's Weather and Climate, edited by Dan Pope and Clayton Brough, in 1996. UCCW Directors have received permission from the copyright owners of this book to reproduce such information on its website and to revise and updated it where appropriate.