Thousands of people flocked Saturday to Mount Holly, scouring the area for parking spots and then joining a downtown throng to soak up colorful sights and sunshine just one week after a major storm barreled through the area.

They came to see sculptors create masterpieces from ice that was bound up in 300-pound blocks, not swirling about and wreaking havoc.

Oh yes, they came, too, for the spicy hot chili that was being served up as the annual Fire & Ice Festival unfolded on a three-block stretch in the business district.

"It's like the dead of winter, so we were looking for something to do," said Wendy Baum, 52, of Haddon Heights, as an ice-carver put finishing touches on his shimmering, 3-foot-tall Rings of Life. Baum's husband, Ken, a Cherry Hill firefighter, was impressed with how the artist had carved the various rings, separately, and then skillfully glued them together through a melting and freezing process involving an iron and a metal box with dry ice.

The sculptor, Robert Lo Furno of Glen Mills, Delaware County, said it was his 11th year competing at the festival, a venue sanctioned by the National Ice Carving Association. The top prize is $1,000, and Lo Furno has won it several times.

The judges later announced Lo Furno had come in second, winning $750, while Richard Daly, of New York, won first place for his Mardi Gras Mask.

"You're judged on 10 different criteria, such as, 'Is it wow?' 'Have I ever seen it before?' 'Is it clean?' " said Lo Furno, whose family business, Just Add Ice, also carves professionally for weddings and other events.

Lo Furno cast a wary eye at his crystalline artwork as temperatures began to rise. Halfway through the festival, a little after 1 p.m., the rings crashed to the ground. Two of the three other sculptures in the competition had also started to turn into mushy puddles.

"It's, like, 40 and that's bad because it has to be under 32 degrees to keep from melting," Lo Furno said, holding up his cellphone to show arriving visitors what the abstract artwork had looked like minutes earlier. Affirming what forecasters have been saying about this unusually warm winter, he said this is only the third time in 11 years that he has had to worry about the event.

Still, visitors kept their coats zipped and their hats and gloves on as a chilly breeze picked up.

Besides the ice sculptures, three alpacas that looked as if they belonged in a set of Star Wars were drawing attention in a nearby pen. The curious animals - who gawked at visitors - were chosen to attend the event from the 105 alpacas raised on the Scotia Acres farm in Lumberton, Burlington County, the exhibitor said. Hats and socks made from their especially warm wool were also offered up for sale at a vendor's table.

A sled-dog demonstration and a cupcake-decorating contest were among other sights at the festival, sponsored by Main Street Mount Holly, a business organization. People also stood in long lines to sample an array of chili dishes that were competing for prizes. The best one, in the opinion of the Baums, was the chili concoction that was "not too hot but that definitely had kick."

But it was a panel of judges that selected the winner, and they went with the Patty Wagon Café.

Event attendees, however, were given tokens to vote as well. The people's choice was the Second Baptist Church of Mount Holly.

For Kate McMaster, 26, of Pitman, this was her third time attending the Fire & Ice Festival. The warmer temperatures were comfortable, she said, but in past years, when it snowed, the event was like "a winter wonderland with snow and ice and alpacas."

Tim Hedges, 37, of West Deptford, agreed. "It created a whole different atmosphere," he said. "But we can't be too picky."

Visitors who came too late and missed the ice carvings will get a second chance - next weekend. Lo Furno said he will be creating another ice sculpture - a polar bear on a surfboard - for the Polar Bear Plunge at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware next Sunday. That's when people can sign up to take a quick dip in the freezing-cold ocean and then watch ice carvers at work.


856-779-3224 @JanHefler