PITTSFIELD -- Dave Madsen knows how to handle Mother Nature's deep freeze.

The concrete tester was among the 18 Allegrone Construction employees who braved wind chills of up to minus 20 degrees on Tuesday as they worked on the foundation of the new Berkshire Place retirement home on South Street.

"I wear multiple layers, have these really good gloves with chemical heat packs if I'm outside for a long period of time," Madsen said.

Berkshirites who had to venture out bundled up -- heeding forecasters' predictions of dangerous wind chills through today.

By early Tuesday morning, several Berkshire and southern Vermont communities reached a minus 20 wind chill, which can cause frostbite to exposed skin within 30 minutes.

The National Weather Service office in Albany, N.Y., expected wind chills to persist in the range of minus 15 to minus 20 until late this morning, as single-digit temperatures would feel colder due to westerly winds that should gradually diminish by later today.

To avoid frostbite or hypothermia in extreme cold, forecasters and health experts are urging everyone to wear gloves, a hat or hood over the ears and several layers of clothing when venturing outside.

They say children and senior citizens are most susceptible to the cold. Check on elderly neighbors to ensure they are warm and comfortable.

As for pets, keep cats and dogs indoors until the cold snap abates. Allow them outside for brief bathroom breaks and supervised exercise.

So far, local hospitals' emergency departments are reporting no weather-related injuries due to the severe cold snap.

However, motor vehicles across the region haven't been so fortunate.

On Tuesday, the 3.5 million-member AAA of Southern New England -- which includes Berkshire County -- reported twice as many calls as usual on a winter's morning, primarily to jump-start dead batteries.

"We've had thousands of calls an hour, but the Berkshires has been about normal," said AAA spokesman John Paul. "Your area had more trouble Sunday and Monday with people trying to start cars that sat during the cold on Friday and Saturday."

In Williamstown and North Adams, firefighters were kept busy helping several home and busienss owners thaw frozen water pipes.

Williamstown Fire Chief Craig Pedercini said the problem is sometimes exacerbated when homeowners try to save money on their heating bills, by drastically lowering the thermostat in unused rooms.

"I've seen people turn down their heat to 45 degrees in one room," Pedercini said. "The pipes are usually behind something thin like sheetrock near the outside wall. So, just because it's 45 degrees inside the room doesn't mean it's 45 degrees in that space."

He added, "Unfortunately what they save on one end on oil or gas is used on a plumber or technician to work on heating systems."

The latest blast of arctic air moved into the upper Midwest on Sunday, reaching the East Coast and as far south as northern Alabama and Georgia.

The bone-chilling cold won't last long, as temperatures begin to warm up again to the more seasonable low 30s by Friday and above-normal mid-40s for the weekend with a slight chance of rain and/or snow.

New England Newspapers writer Ed Damon contributed to this report.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233

The freeze factor

Tuesday morning's top wind chill readings in the Berkshires and Southern Vermont:

Bennington (Vt.) -25 @8:35 a.m.

Windsor (Mass.) -24 @5:30 a.m.

Pittsfield (airport) -20 @6:54 a.m.

Adams -20 @7:29 a.m.

North Adams (airport) -16 @8:52 a.m.

Source: National Weather Service office, Albany, N.Y.