Butler County municipal, school leaders begin preparations for winter season

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

No matter how much bad winter weather Pittsburgh gets, there's a pretty good chance it will be worse in Butler County, experts say.

“While a storm can always move south and result in more snow falling in Pittsburgh than to the north, that is the exception,” said Mark Paquette, a meteorologist for AccuWeather in State College. “Butler is closer to Lake Erie and at a higher elevation (than Pittsburgh), which are positive — or negative — factors for receiving heavier snow depending on your perspective.”

It's not too early to think snow — PennDOT conducted its annual inspection of snow-removal equipment at its Butler County maintenance facility on Thursday. Already, Buffalo Township Supervisors have notified residents that police will strictly enforce the law prohibiting parking on roads within the township during the snow-clearing season.

Heavier snow typically falls when the warmer water temperature in Lake Erie forces moist air to rise into the atmosphere and meet blasts of Arctic air from Canada, Paquette said.

AccuWeather's long-range winter forecast calls for total accumulation of about 38 inches of snow in Pittsburgh this year.

“Whatever the total amount of yearly snowfall is in Pittsburgh, you can generally expect at least 10 inches, if not more, of snow to fall in the Butler area,” Paquette said.

Rather than fight Mother Nature's winter wrath, officials at Moraine State Park will make the best of it by playing host to the fourth annual “Winterfest” in January featuring activities including a chili cook-off, cross-country skiing, carriage rides and demonstrations in dog sledding and ice fishing. The event is sponsored by the Moraine Preservation Fund.

“We decided that it might be nice to give people a good reason to get outdoors during the winter,” said Natalie Simon, an environmental education specialist at the park. “The first year we held the event it was one of the coldest days anyone could remember, but it still attracted well over 1,000 people. It does appear to have some appeal for those looking for a cure for cabin fever.”

Though winter can provide plenty of opportunities for recreation, stores such as Trader Horn are focused on providing customers with the tools to cope with snow and ice.

“We put out a cold weather flyer the first week of October as a reminder for people to pick up what they need while there's a good selection available at a discount,” said Dave Smith, the company's advertising manager. “Luckily, we're in a position with our suppliers that if we start to see the stock getting low on some items we can get them in the stores quickly.”

Though school districts have access to all sorts of weather data to help determine when to delay or cancel classes, sometimes technology can't compete with common sense.

“I walk out to my mailbox in the morning, which is 50 yards from my house,” said William Pettigrew, superintendent of the Mars Area School District. “If I fall before I get there, classes are canceled. If I fall on the way back, I call a two-hour delay.”Pettigrew is being facetious, but the observation of weather conditions he and others make are, in fact, used to decide how to respond to snowstorms.

“Me and several other people in the district go out to various locations to check on the conditions,” he said. “I also talk to police who have been out on patrol and then make a decision.”

Mars has five days built into its calendar at the end of the year to make up for cancellations.

The Seneca Valley School District takes a similar approach in deciding whether to delay or cancel classes.

“We communicate with police, public works departments and our bus garage starting at about 3:30 or 4 a.m.,” said Linda Andreassi, district spokeswoman. “The district covers 100 square miles, so we have to know what the conditions are on the narrow, winding back roads as well as the highways.”

Seneca Valley has four “off days” in the spring that can be used to make up days lost because of the weather, she said.

Bob Skrak, PennDOT's manager for Butler County, said he determines the amount of anti-skid material to order by reviewing the amount used during the previous five years.

“We already have about 60 percent of the 20,000 tons of material we ordered for this winter,” Skrak said. “Some of it will be used to make the 380,000 gallons of brine that we expect to spray onto roadways as a pre-treatment, which is insurance against ice bonding to the surface.”

Long-range weather predictions can be useful, Skrak said, but “it's the day-to-day forecasts that we really rely on” to mobilize resources.

“We try to be proactive by monitoring about four or five weather websites and making calls to Ohio to track the prevailing conditions that are heading our way,” he said.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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