Rapid thaw to follow polar blast

NO EASY TASK — A firefighter walks past an ice-encrusted home after an early morning house fire Wednesday, in St. Paul, Minn. Firefighters were called to the house fire in the North End shortly after 4:15 a.m. The air temperature was 27 degrees below zero Wednesday morning, with windchills at 52 degrees below zero. No injuries were reported.. -- Associated Press

CHICAGO — The bitter cold that gripped the Midwest forced commuters to bundle up like polar explorers. By early next week, many of those same people might get by with a light jacket.

Just days after the arctic conditions, forecasts say, the region will seemingly swing into another season, with temperatures climbing by as much as 80 degrees. Experts say the rapid thaw is unprecedented, and it could create problems of its own — bursting pipes, flooding rivers and crumbling roads.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a case where we’ve seen (such a big) shift in temperatures” in the winter, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the Weather Underground firm. “Past record-cold waves have not dissipated this quickly. … Here we are going right into spring-like temperatures.”

Although many places remained painfully cold Thursday, the deep freeze eased somewhat, and the system marched east. Frigid weather descended on an area spanning from Buffalo to Brooklyn.

In western New York, a storm that dumped up to 20 inches of snow gave way to subzero temperatures and face-stinging wind chills. In New York City, about 200 firefighters battling a blaze in a commercial building took turns getting warm on buses. The number of deaths that could be blamed on the cold climbed to at least 15.

For the nation’s midsection, relief was as close as the weekend.

Rockford, Ill., was at a record-breaking minus 31 on Thursday morning but should be around 50 on Monday. Other previously frozen areas could see temperatures of 55 or higher.

The dramatic warm-up will offer a respite from the bone-chilling cold that canceled school, closed businesses and halted trains.

But potholes will appear on roads and bridges weakened by the freeze-thaw cycle. The same cycle can crack water mains and homeowners’ pipes. Scores of vehicles will be left with flat tires and bent rims.

Joe Buck, who manages Schmit Towing in Minneapolis and spent about 20 hours a day outdoors this week responding to stranded vehicle calls, said he’s already taking calls for Monday to deal with a backlog of hundreds of stalled vehicles.

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