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‘You don’t know this ice': N.Y. firefighters respond to 3 lake rescues in 24 hours

South Bay crews were forced to hand off a call at a school for a student struggling to breathe because they are required to respond to all ice rescues


Brewerton firefighters load an airboat on to a truck after escorting two ice fisherman off the ice on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2023.

Photo/Anne Hayes via MCT

By Anne Hayes

ONEIDA LAKE, N.Y. — The unseasonably warm weather has led to at least three ice rescues on Oneida Lake in 24 hours, the latest one on Thursday morning.

On Wednesday evening, a man drove onto the lake on a four-wheeler when it went partially through the ice 300 yards offshore, said Tom Newton, an Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. Air One, the sheriff’s office’s helicopter, was called in to rescue him from the ice.

At about noon Wednesday, an airboat - a specialized boat that can glide across the ice with a fan - was used to rescue a fisherman near Bridgeport.

Around 10:42 a.m. today, a resident on the lake called to report someone may have gone through the ice while out ice fishing.

When crews arrived, they saw two men out on the ice. When they approached the men in an airboat, the men refused to get into the boat, said Blake Lonergan, the second assistant chief of the South Bay Fire Department.

Firefighters gave the men lifepreservers and told them they had to escort them off the ice, the rescuers said.

Brewerton firefighters involved in the rescue — Dave Ferguson, Scott Whiting and George Hart — said that the ice on the lake is notoriously unpredictable.

Syracuse set a record Wednesday with a high temperature of 69 degrees, about the same as a typical day in mid-May.

Whiting said that the lake is known for its fishing and people come from all over the state. This can add to the danger when people don’t know the lake especially when the region is experiencing record-breaking warm weather.

Lt. Rich Bilger, of the Brewerton Fire Department, said that even people experienced in ice fishing can get into trouble on the lake.

“You can know this lake,” Bliger said, “but you don’t know this ice.”

Hart said that the lake ice can easily “honeycomb”, meaning that the ice will appear to be solid but can really be large chunks of broken ice. When someone falls through the ice in those conditions, they may not be able to find the crack they fell through and get trapped underneath the surface.

Hart said that all the die-hard, experienced ice fishermen he knows on the north side of the lake have already decided to stop going out on the ice this season due to the high temps and unpredictable nature of the ice.

Any ice rescue takes a lot of resources and firefighters out of commission for other calls, the rescuers said. An ice rescue call triggers a response from around 10 departments and often for the Air One helicopter from the sheriff’s office, Lonergan said.

South Bay firefighters, who ran point for the rescue on Thursday, had to hand off an emergency call at a local elementary school for a student struggling to breathe because they are required to respond to all ice rescues, Lonergan said.

Firefighters said that the residents around the lake get scared when they see people on the ice in warm weather because they know that the ice can turn on a dime.

“It hasn’t been that cold of a winter,” Newton told | The Post-Standard Wednesday. “We at the sheriff’s office would like everyone to take precautions whenever they go onto the lake. The ice isn’t as thick as everyone thinks it is.”


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