Summit County officials: Be wary of snowpack on roofs, around gas meters

Montezuma resident Brian Sunderland clears snow from his driveway Saturday morning, March 9, on Montezuma Road.
Hugh Carey /

As Summit County recovers from the chaos brought on by copious snowfall throughout last week, area emergency agencies are warning individuals not to get complacent with the warmer weather.

While avalanches and roadway closures have soaked up much of the attention of late, officials say there are other dangers to keep in mind as spring approaches such as heavy snow loading on flat and low-pitched roofs, and potential damage to natural gas meters near homes.

“Roof collapses are not new for the district,” said Jim Keating, chief at Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District. “It’s easy for people to totally forget about it when you go through two or three winters without issue. But at the same time, when you have two storms in excess of a foot of snow, it can really put a load on your structure. We’re just trying to get people to look at their roofs and their internal structure for any movement. Because it can happen quickly.”

Keating said that the current conditions are ripe for incidents such as roof or garage collapses due to snow patterns over the last week or so. He noted that when there’s a big snowstorm the sun typically has a chance to melt the snow on top of roofs, though when there’s another storm quickly afterward the melt off freezes and creates a hard, heavy layer under the new snow that continues to build, considerably slowing the melting process.

The ice created after the initial melting process can sometimes form major blockages in drainage paths and gutters, allowing snow and ice to build up without a homeowner’s or property manager’s knowledge.

Keating likened this season’s snowfall to early 2017, when almost 50 inches of snow piled on top of the Ten Mile Room — part of the Village at Breckenridge — completely “pancaking” the structure.

“In this situation we’ve been getting heavy snow after heavy snow, and there are some roofs in the area that have in excess of 4 to 5 feet of snow built up on them,” said Keating. “On a flat roof, depending on the age and construction of the building, you can start to see some movement and some swing.”

Scott Hoffman, chief building official with Summit County, said that permanent structures in Summit County are designed and engineered to be able to hold upwards of 70 to 100 pounds of snow per square foot — about 8 to 11 feet depending on moisture content. However, those regulations only kicked in around the mid-1970s, meaning structures built before then are at an increased risk. The county maintains a building inspection department matrix that lists design parameters for snow loads in areas around the county.

Early warning signs that there’s too much weight on your roof include creaking inside the structure, leaking from the roof or sprinklers, new or widening cracks, and windows and doors not opening or closing correctly. Keating recommended that anyone experiencing warning signs contact a structural engineer for recommendations.

In addition to roofs, it’s important to be mindful of snow loads on decks and gazebos.

“The weight of the snow over a long season can be substantial,” said William Sulicz, owner of Clear Path Snow Removal out of Breckenridge. “We had one client that sold their home, and the new homeowners never took care of the snow. So much snow accumulated that the deck began to rip away from the house and completely collapsed.”

While removing snow from roofs and decks is important, it’s also vital to do so safely. Snow removal can be done by yourself, though officials recommend reaching out to one of several snow removal companies in the area that utilize safety equipment such as anchors and harnesses when getting up on a roof.

Billie Jo Trujillo, a representative with G&G Roofing, LLC, said that it’s best for individuals to avoid climbing on the roof if possible, and that climbing up alone is overly dangerous for those hoping to tackle the removal themselves. Instead, she recommended using a ladder with someone holding on to stabilize it or securely tying it to the structure before heading up, and making sure someone is nearby to call for help if something goes wrong. Trujillo also said that it’s a good idea to get a long-pole snow rake so that you can remove snow from your roof more safely while on the ground before too much accumulates.

But even from the ground, residents should be wary of trying to clear too much snow with a rake due to the danger of miniature avalanches sliding off the roof. Just this weekend a man was killed following a slide off a roof in Crested Butte while trying to clear snow. Steve Lipsher of Summit Fire & EMS urged caution for those using snow rakes, warning individuals not to stand directly below the snow’s fall path, and to try to clear the roof in small chunks so that the entire roof doesn’t slide at once.

Along with clearing roofs, it’s important to make sure that the area around your gas meter by your house is properly cleared. In February 2017, a fire broke out at a Breckenridge home after falling snow broke and buried a gas line, trapping leaking gas under the snow that ignited due to heat from a nearby fireplace vent.

“Clearing snow and ice from natural gas meters is key to avoiding the potential for dangerous natural gas buildup indoors due to vents becoming sealed when covered in ice and snow,” said Michelle Aguayo, a representative with Xcel Energy. Xcel recommends keeping the entire meter assembly clear by gently removing snow and ice from the meter, associated piping and the roofline above the meter. The company also said to use a shovel to move snow away from the meter, and not to use a snow blower near the meter.

On top of snow safety issues at home, officials are also warning residents not to get cocky on the roadways, even on warmer days. Lipsher said that giant piles of snow built up by plows have obscured views of approaching traffic at intersections around the county, and urged drivers to approach intersections slowly to check for hidden traffic.

Lipsher said that warmer snow over the coming weeks might have higher moisture content, creating very slick and slushy roads.

“We get complacent and we think we’ll be able to control our vehicles at substantial speeds,” said Lipsher. “But it’s greasy slick and difficult to maintain traction. We advise people as we move into these warmer spring months to drive at appropriate speeds, give plenty of room, signal your intentions and take extra precautions on these extra slick roads.”

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