MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Snow is a fact of life at this northern Japan base. And so, it seems, are winter-related accidents, from fender-benders on icy roads to backs strained from snow shoveling.

Base officials every year aim to reduce cold-weather mishaps through a series of mandatory winter awareness briefings. This year’s sessions begin Monday.

“The winters here are very unpredictable,” said Tech. Sgt. Abraham Malit, noncommissioned officer in charge of ground safety for the 35th Fighter Wing. The weather, he noted, can turn on a dime. “We talk about how to drive in the snow and what to expect during the winter.”

Misawa, in northern Honshu near the Pacific Ocean, receives an average yearly snowfall of 125 inches, though it’s been as high as 219 inches and as little as last year’s total of 70.9 inches. But even when snow is sparse, icy roads are a mainstay of Misawa winters.

Malit said driving, especially off-base, can be tricky since Japanese usually don’t plow side roads in town. And while some base residents never have driven in snow before, Malit said he worries more about experienced winter drivers: “Those are the most dangerous ones because of complacency.”

While security forces will provide winter-driving tips, civil engineering personnel will explain which on-base roads are cleared first and the base parking lot plowing schedule. Certain lots are plowed on certain days; civil engineering personnel will tow vehicles still in parking areas to be plowed that day, Malit said.

Others to speak at the briefing include representatives from 35th Medical Group, Outdoor Recreation and the wing safety office.

In fiscal 2004, winter sports accounted for 36 active-duty mishaps, wing safety statistics show. Those include skiing, snowboarding and sledding accidents. In addition, 40 “other winter mishaps” were logged, such as muscle strains from shoveling snow and slips and falls. In all, 46 duty days were lost.

A tragic incident prompted the annual briefings, base officials said: In winter 1996, three Misawa airmen camping in the Hakkoda mountains were asphyxiated in their sleep when a propane stove consumed oxygen in their tent.

Presenters will discuss this incident as well as two other serious Misawa winter mishaps: In 1999, three sailors almost were lost while skiing in the Hakkoda mountains; in 2001, a military passenger and Japanese driver were killed in a February vehicle collision. Speeding and road conditions were factors, Malit said of the latter.

Winter also can pose indoor hazards. Malit said every year, Misawa has a few house fires from unattended candles and Christmas tree lights.

Briefings at the Richard Bong Theater will be offered Monday through Nov. 18 at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Briefings also will be held at 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Nov. 19 in the Tohoku Enlisted Club. Civilians working for Department of Defense Dependents Schools can catch a briefing either at 3 p.m. Nov. 22 at Sollars Elementary School or 10 a.m. Nov. 29 at Edgren High School.

The briefings are mandatory for all active-duty troops and Defense Department employees assigned to the installation. The sessions are not mandatory for family members, but they are encouraged to attend.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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