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WHERE HAS WINTER GONE? JANUARY THAW BRINGS FEARS OF FLOODING IN WNY

Western New Yorkers are trading their snow shovels for buckets in the wake of a January thaw that has turned much of last week's 3-foot snow pack into pools of water.

Many are undoubtedly already thinking spring with today's temperatures expected to peak in the low to mid 60s, but others are keeping a watchful eye on their basements and nearby creeks and streams.

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch for all of Western New York this weekend as the warm weather continues to eat away at the remnants of one of the area's snowiest months on record.

Thus far, Buffalo has received 63.5 inches of snow in January, 4.8 inches shy of the all-time snowiest January of 1977. The snowiest month on record in Buffalo was December 1985 when 68.4 inches fell.

But, with temperatures today expected to flirt with the record high of 65 set in 1906, area highway crews and fire departments remain on standby looking out for any ice jam flooding in traditional flood-prone areas around Cazenovia, Buffalo and Ellicott creeks.

"We've cleared out our snow piles in many areas to accommodate runoff into ditches where it's supposed to go, and most places have snowbanks that are cut back," said David P. Comerford, Erie County deputy commissioner of highways.

Comerford said crews have broken up ice jams on flood-prone waterways, distributed sandbags to area municipalities and volunteer fire departments and are continuing to patrol creeks and streams in preparation for any flooding problems.

The effectiveness of such precautions is often limited, however, Comerford said.

"In the areas that are most flood-prone -- Cazenovia Creek, the Newstead/Clarence area and in Concord/Sardinia -- there's not a heck of a lot anyone of us can do if we get the high rains and runoffs."

Local highway departments and their county and state counterparts will be monitoring road conditions throughout the weekend. Any roads that become impassable due to rising flood waters will be closed to traffic, Comerford said.

Tom Wik, Amherst highway superintendent, said nearby Ellicott Creek, which has a tendency to crest at times like this, was flowing normally Friday evening. His crews plan to keep a watch on it through the weekend.

"We were out all day (Friday) making sure the receivers are opened up, checking streams and creeks making sure they're flowing properly and filling sandbags," Wik said. "We're ready if something does occur. We have people on standby."

National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Blackburn cautioned area residents in low-lying and flood-prone areas as well as motorists to be alert for quickly changing conditions.

With a 60 percent chance of scattered showers today and the warm temperatures, melting snow with poor drainage can set up hazardous ponding on roadways and many flooded basements.

On average, between 12 and 18 inches of snow remained on the ground across the region Friday evening. That equates to between 3 and 5 inches of water, Blackburn said.

A strong flow out of the south as part of an approaching cold front is responsible for the mid-January warmth. But it won't last for long.

A 90 percent chance of showers and scattered thunderstorms that are expected to bring up to three-quarters of an inch of rain tonight with blustery winds and lows in the 40s will yield to temperatures dropping through the 30s and a chance for snow Sunday.

"The rain Saturday night will take care of a huge part of (the snowpack)," said Dave Sage, meteorologist. "By Sunday morning we'll probably see a noticeable decrease with bare ground in spots."

The return to more seasonal temperatures early next week will come a few days too late for the 26th annual Erie County Winter Carnival, slated to run through Sunday, at Chestnut Ridge Park. The warm, wet weather won't dampen the spirit of the event though, organizers said.

"In spite of Buffalo's reputation, you can't bank on snow here," said Daniel J. NeMoyer, Erie County's deputy commissioner for recreation. "In the 26 years we've been doing this, there's been eight years the weather has worked out for us."

There should be a deep enough base of snow from earlier this month to allow for tobogganing and sledding, NeMoyer said. Other events, such as hay rides, a fish-lure casting competition, childrens' games, musical entertainment and kite flying, will be held as scheduled from noon to 5 p.m. today and Sunday.

Meanwhile, the week's warm-up has kept calls from numerous residents with flooded basements streaming into the area's Home Improvement Council.

The council, a 30-year-old organization of contractors based in Cheektowaga, has fielded an average of 20 to 30 calls per day from customers with or fearing backed up sewers and flooded basements, said Fred Browning, council president.

"We're just trying to notify the customers who call in about how to protect their house," Browning said.

"One of the big things is they should check their sump pump and make sure its working properly, because if it's not, it will automatically flood right away."

Browning also suggested homeowners cap off any sewer drains that could back up in their basements with rubber plugs and take additional precautions with any belongings that are stored in the basement.

"If you have a potential flooding problem, move the valuable things to a safer place," he said. "It's kind of tough with floods because if you live near a flood-prone creek, you're probably going to get it."

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