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Freezing rain, snow expected in Maine, N.H., Vt.

A storm system that’s moving into Northern New England this weekend will pack a little bit of everything, from snow and sleet to rain and freezing rain, officials said yesterday. But it was the threat of freezing rain that had travelers, utilities and law enforcement officials keeping a close eye on the forecast.

The National Weather Service said there was the possibility of ice accumulation of a half-inch or more – enough to make travel difficult and cause widespread power outages.

Maine Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Lynnette Miller said no one anticipates the icing will be anywhere near the level of the infamous ice storm of 1998 that left 700,000 residents in the dark. That storm produced 1 to 3 inches of ice, but even lesser amounts could still cause problems.

“The best advice for everyone is just to really pay attention. With every few hours, we’re going to get better information,” Miller said.

Freezing rain yesterday made roads and sidewalks slick in parts of Vermont, where the state Emergency Management Agency said it was still unclear how much ice the state could see over the weekend. “Most forecasts project the area of greatest impact to be northwestern Vermont including the Champlain Valley,” said spokesman Mark Bosma.

The Vermont State Police asked drivers to stay off Interstate 89, after multiple vehicles slid off the road last night.

Most of the state of Maine, plus Carroll and Coos counties in New Hampshire, were under a winter storm watch, while coastal New Hampshire and York and Cumberland counties in Maine could escape the brunt of the storm.

The greatest potential for heavy precipitation is tonight through tomorrow. A half-inch or more of ice could build up during freezing rain in a swath from Conway, eastward across inland Maine, while northern Maine and New Hampshire could see a half-foot of snow, said John Jensenius of the National Weather Service.

Across the region, people were watching weather reports.

Brit Vitalius, whose real estate company was hosting 50 guests for the Portland Symphony’s Magic of Christmas, considered canceling tomorrow’s event altogether. Instead, his group decided to carry on, hoping the weather won’t make roads too treacherous en route to Merrill Auditorium.

Most folks are accustomed to the region’s fickle weather, he said.

“You get beautiful snow, then you get rain and then you get ice. It’s hard to plan your life. It might be ice, which is completely treacherous. But there’s a good chance it could be rain,” he said. “You can’t alter your life. It’s winter in Maine.”

Utility companies weren’t taking any chances.

In New Hampshire, Unitil Corporation warned its natural gas and electricity customers to prepare for ice, especially around Concord. Ice apparently poses the most threat to the north, but the potential for damage to tree limbs and power poles, causing outages, also could occur elsewhere.

The Public Service Company of New Hampshire, the state’s largest utility, was also arranging for hundreds of extra workers to respond to any outages. They will arrive in New Hampshire beginning early tonight and will join the New Hampshire-based force.

Maine utilities were also making contingencies, including bringing in contract workers and additional staff from utilities in other states in the event of major icing.

Central Maine Power utility trucks were fueled and CMP staff were holding planning sessions to discuss staffing levels and storm-response plans, said spokeswoman Gail Rice.

“Freezing rain is always one of our biggest concerns, and the conditions forecast for Sunday could cause considerable ice buildup on roadways, tree limbs, and power lines,” Rice said. “This could result in power interruptions and difficult travel, so we’re getting crews, equipment, and materials in place to respond.”

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