Heavy snowfall and continued cold temperatures have put thousands of fire hydrants under cover, and Salt Lake City and County Fire Departments are seeking citizen help in finding them.

Locating and clearing the hydrants of snow and ice can save valuable time in fighting a fire - and perhaps even save lives.While other fire departments in the Salt Lake Valley and other areas of Utah may not have issued a public appeal for help in digging out around fire hydrants, they, too, would appreciate assistance.

"We've lost approximately 3,000 fire hydrants in Salt Lake City alone. We don't know where many of them are located and hope citizens can help us find them," City Fire Battalion Chief Gordon Nicholl said.

Nicholl and county fire officials this week enlisted the aid of homeowners, businesses, Scout troops, civic organizations or other groups in finding the hydrants and digging out about a 3-foot area around and a path to the hydrants.

In Salt Lake City the hydrants are painted yellow with green, orange or red tops, depending on the size of the water main to which the hydrant is connected.

A fire hydrant is located about every half block or in the center of every block in the city, Nicholl said.

Hydrants in Salt Lake County are painted red with white, red, orange or green tops, with the latter colors also depending on the size of the water main.

A Salt Lake County ordinance, in effect since 1965 but not strictly enforced until 1979, requires that hydrants be located every 500 feet in new subdivisions. But in some areas the hydrants are 1,000 feet apart, according to County Fire Battalion Chief Frank A. Brown.

As time and their workloads permit, firefighters try to dig out some of the hydrants, but "we are reluctant to pull engines out (for this kind of work) because of the cold weather. Pumps (and water) on the trucks freeze," Nicholl said.

"We're very concerned, because if we can't find the hydrants we can't get water to a fire."

In addition to their firefighting responsibilities, firefighters also have been trying to assist homeowners and businesses with broken water pipes and flooding caused by subzero temperatures during recent days.

"Normally, we go out and dig the hydrants out. But we have been so busy with frozen water lines in buildings and homes that we have not had time to dig hydrants out. We can only be in one place at a time," Nicholl said.

Tuesday night the Salt Lake City Fire Department was dispatched to a house fire at 350 Harvard Ave. A hydrant was located close to the burning home, but firefighters didn't know that and began laying fire hose to another hydrant.

Brown said buried hydrants are a major problem, particularly in the Olympus Cove area, along Highland Drive and other major traffic arteries that are plowed regularly during snowstorms.

Brown, who is the county department's water supply officer with hydrants as one of his responsibilities, said digging out a hydrant near the scene of a fire can take five, 10 or more minutes.

That means a fire gets a "head start on firefighters. That could triple the damage inside a home (or business) by the time we dig a hydrant out," he said.

Brown suggested that property owners or other willing volunteers use a crowbar or other heavy equipment to chop away ice and snow.

"Water that is not accessible is identical to having no water at all," County Fire Chief Larry Hinman said.