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Placid lake cross-country ski

Square miles of untracked powder snow cover the hills between Placid and Seeley lakes northeast of Missoula in this 2018 file photo. This year, an early-winter lack of the snow that typically acts as ground insulation has led to burst pipes in the area.

SEELEY LAKE — The calls started trickling into the Seeley Lake Water District office around Presidents’ Day, but soon became a steady stream that’s only starting to let up as what could be a record number of water lines and pipes froze, and some burst, in this small logging and resort community.

Two sections of the buried main line serving Phase 1A of the Double Arrow subdivision northwest of town are frozen, with no way to thaw them, according to Vince Chappell, manager of the district. That’s affecting about eight homes.

Another half-dozen homes around town also are dealing with frozen buried service lines that run from the main lines to the houses, and an untold number of individuals are reporting frozen and/or burst indoor pipes. Three businesses also are without water.

“We’ve had upward of 45 different issues with homes freezing and pipes freezing,” Chappell said. “It’s an unusual year. I have been here almost 19 years and this is only the second time I’ve seen the frost 7 feet deep in places.

“It started with a couple calls, then just a barrage of calls — three or four per day. What we have been trying to do is address it as fast as we can. I’ve taken four or five days off in the last five weeks, and my worker is just the same. There’s only two of us and a secretary.”

Chappell added that he’s not sure when water service will be returned to the affected residents, noting that the problem could last through April.

While residents cautiously wait for the weather to warm to get service restored, the district is paying for bottled water for drinking from Cory’s Valley Market, and has a few places people can fill buckets for bathing. Chappell didn’t know what that might end up costing the district, but a clerk at the market said nine families currently are on the water district supply list.

“Compared to what it could be, the amount isn’t much,” Chappell said. “It just is what it is; it’s the cost of doing business. We’ve been trying to get pipes thawed and things back to normal, but unfortunately there’s no way to do that.

“But people here are pretty good about it. It’s a very uncomfortable situation to live without water, but most people are pretty down to earth about it. They know that it’s Mother Nature, not us.”

The problem started with rain and a lack of snow in the early winter, which typically acts as ground insulation. Then a near-record cold snap started in late January and lasted through February. The late-season rains and a high water table in some areas, coupled with main lines not buried deep enough, and a mix of absentee snowbird homeowners created the perfect iced cocktail for trouble.

Chappell has a machine that can run through some lines and thaw them, but if they hit galvanized pipe fittings, the machine gets stuck. That’s a big part of the problem in the Double Arrow subdivision, where the main lines dead end and can stretch for a quarter-mile.

“We’re talking thousands of feet of main line freezing,” he said.

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He’s tried digging up the service lines elsewhere, but said that’s like crunching through 7 feet of concrete in places because of the deep frost. Warmer weather eventually will thaw the pipes, but that’s also when people will learn if the main lines are broken and need to be replaced. Chappell said the warmer weather also pushes the frost level lower into the ground.

“When it gets warm, I especially start to get nervous,” he said. “People start shutting off that trickle of water, thinking everything is fine, and (the service line) immediately freezes.”

Ken Schmitz is the owner of Heritage Plumbing & Heating in Seeley Lake, and said that between frozen pipes and new construction, his crews are running around “like a chicken with our legs cut off.” He expects the situation to become worse when the seasonal residents return and find out they’ve been affected.

Schmitz currently is working on a house where the owner left for two weeks only to find the pipes had burst and flooded the house when they thawed. He encourages homeowners to shut off the pumps or valves on the service lines and drain their faucets before leaving for extended periods.

“If it’s cold for a day or two you can get past that, but if it’s cold for two months that cold starts creeping into a house,” Schmitz said. “But we’re a hardy bunch in Seeley Lake, and for the most part people are prepared.”

People interested in obtaining free water are encouraged to contact the water district at 677-2559 or Chappell on his cell phone at 210-3760.

He noted that Seeley Lake isn't alone in its water woes. So far this winter, residents in Helena, Red Lodge, Stevensville and Missoula lost their water after service lines froze. Helena also had a city water main line freeze.

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