Maine’s outside workers shrug off frigid temperatures

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LEWISTON — Delivery man Scott Biron didn’t mind being outside so much on Wednesday. It was being inside that made him uncomfortable.

“It’s actually worse,” the UPS driver from Litchfield said, “when I go into someplace warm and have to stay there for a little bit. I’m dressed for the outdoors. I’ve got extra layers on today. I’ve got Under Armour, so I’m good when I’m outside.”

Staying warm: What’s in YOUR underwear drawer?

Biron should keep those layers handy. Forecasters predict that parts of the state could be facing one of the worst cold spells over the next several days since record-keeping began 77 years ago.

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“The current cold spell could rival some of the longest, most intense on record at Portland,” the National Weather Service warned in an ominous post on its Facebook page Wednesday. “The current 7-day forecast does not have Portland rising above 20 degrees, with most nights below zero.”

Wednesday’s high temperature in Portland reached a frigid 15 degrees, but it will be even colder Thursday.

The cold weather pattern, caused by a stalled arctic air mass, will continue for a week, according to Margaret Curtis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray. Curtis was asked just how cold it was going to get.

“Is too cold an option?” Curtis asked.

Temperatures in Portland were expected to dip to 6 below zero Wednesday night and Thursday morning, with the high Thursday expected to be 8 degrees. If that happens, Curtis said, Portland would shatter the record for the coldest high temperature for Dec. 28, which was 11 degrees, set in 1946.

The average high in Portland for that date is 34 degrees and the average low is 16. The record high for the date is 57 in 1949, and the record low was 13 below zero in 1951.

It will be even colder in the mountains of Maine. Curtis said the region between Rangeley and Jackman will see wind chills reaching 20 to 30 degrees below zero Wednesday night into Thursday.

The weather service urged everyone to wear a hat and gloves while outside.

‘Keep moving — always moving’

Despite the frostbite and hypothermia warnings, Mainers who work outside didn’t seem to mind the extreme conditions that drove others indoors.

Turns out that working outside in frigid temperatures wasn’t all that much trouble, provided there was enough work to go around.

“Outdoors framing all day was not that bad, considering,” said David Marquis, owner of Marquis Building & remodeling in Lewiston. “Keep moving — always moving.”

No problem there. Marquis and his crew on Wednesday were in Poland on a construction project. Turns out that building a house from the ground up requires a lot of physical movement, an established remedy for keeping warm in temperatures that never rose higher than the low teens.

“We had so much material to handle to build it,” Marquis said, “we kept the body temperatures up moving around. Kept a heater ready in the basement just in case. Only paid it a visit a couple times. I expected the wind to be a bigger factor today but it was nothing where we were.”

Craig Stewart was packing up his day’s catch of scallops Wednesday afternoon on Portland Pier.

The sun was shining, but the air temperature was in the mid teens and the breeze was biting cold at the edge of Portland Harbor.

On days like Wednesday, Stewart said, he’ll give his engine a little extra time to warm up in the morning and he and his crew make sure to keep ice off the deck of his boat, Carl & Co. But asked if he was bothered by the cold, Stewart shrugged.

“You gotta go to work every day. Gotta pay the bills,” he said.

Fishermen, construction workers and tree cutters were some of the workers who shrugged off warnings of dangerously cold temperatures and went to work outside Wednesday, while also taking well-practiced precautions that are sure to be put to use again as Maine braces for the potentially historic blast of frigid air.

Curtis is forecasting that temperatures will not get above 20 degrees in Portland for the next seven days.

She said the current cold spell may rival a 1979 cold snap during which temperatures remained below 20 degrees for 10 consecutive days.

During that cold spell, which was recorded between Jan. 31 and Feb. 20, 1979, Portland experienced 21 consecutive days of temperatures below 32 degrees and 13 nights with temperatures falling below zero. In January 1971, Portland suffered another cold spell with eight consecutive days of temperatures below 20 degrees.

Meanwhile, Maine workers demonstrated just how hardy they can be.

Lucas Tree Experts had about 80 crews of two or three people working around the state Wednesday, cutting trees and limbs away from power lines or homes.

“We sent out a cold bulletin to all our crews this morning telling them to take frequent breaks, dress in layers, those kinds of things,” said Kathy Buxton, human resources manager for the company. “Staying dry is really important.”

Chris Everest, an arborist with Lucas Tree, spent the day trimming and cutting trees for homeowners in South Portland and Portland. He brushed off the arctic air.

“Everybody is talking about how cold it is, then they go work their office job,” said Everest, a 30-year-old from Hollis. “I’d much rather be outside regardless of temperature.”

Kyle Gosselin, 25, of Greene, and John Kiley, 51, of New Gloucester, were part of a road crew installing a gas line Wednesday on outer Congress Street in Portland. They work for one of several subcontractors at the work site. Both regularly work outdoors and enjoy winter pastimes such as snowmobiling, ice fishing and snowshoeing, so they usually don’t mind cold weather.

“You get used to it,” Gosselin said. “We’re out here from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so you just gotta deal with it.“

But toiling in below-freezing temperatures for a week requires extra care.

“This morning it was 12 below zero when I got in my truck at 4:30,” Gosselin said. “Basically, in this weather, you have to stay busy to stay warm.”

Gosselin said he avoids down time indoors or in vehicles so he won’t sweat and get colder when he goes back outside. He also beefs up his clothing, wearing two pairs of long johns, three long-sleeve T-shirts, a hooded sweatshirt, a Carhartt jacket and foot-warming heat packs in his heavy work boots. Kiley’s cold-weather gear includes long johns and lined jeans.

“As long as you keep moving, you’re all right,” Kiley said.

In Brunswick, a small crew of Warren Construction Group workers seemed oblivious to temperatures that dipped to 5 below zero. At 7:30 a.m., they were hard at work building Bowdoin College’s Roux Center for the Environment, a platinum-LEED designed building that has to be open for incoming students in August 2018, said company President Peter Warren.

“We’re pushing it,” said Warren, noting that year-round construction work in Maine has its challenges. “But we’re going to slug it out.”

The company trains its employees to work in extreme cold. They are taught to dress properly — wear multiple layers of high-tech thermal clothing — to hydrate constantly, to avoid working up a sweat and to watch each other for signs of frostbite. They also ensure all safety harnesses and gear are tied off properly, standard operating procedures any time of the year, but especially important when work site conditions can be hazardous because of snow or ice, Warren said.

On Wednesday, the crew was getting ready to attach a slab on a metal deck, part of the building’s envelope. Once the building is enclosed, workers can heat the interior, which will provide some relief from the cold.

They hope to get that done within a week, but it won’t be soon enough to mitigate the frigid temperatures expected this week. Still, Warren said, he expects the crew to be out there.

“We have a tendency in construction in Maine,” he said. “We love it in the summer and we suffer in the winter.”

While the stretch of cold facing the state might seem like it will never end, Curtis said there is a silver lining. There is no snow in the seven-day forecast.

“At least we don’t have to go outside and shovel,” she said.

Portland Press Herald staff writers Kelley Bouchard, Carol Coultas and John Richardson and Sun Journal staff writer Mark LaFlamme contributed to this story.

With temperatures in the high teens Wednesday, iron workers contracted through Warren Construction Group weld on the second level of the future Roux Center for the Environment on the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick. National Weather Service meteorologist Margaret Curtis in Gray said temperatures won’t rise above 20 degrees for another week, “with most nights below zero.” (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)
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