The coldest winter in more than a decade has depleted the Portland area’s supply of dry firewood, forced residents to pay more for heating fuels and prompted thousands statewide to seek financial assistance with paying heating bills.

The number of Mainers requesting emergency heating assistance through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is more than twice what it was a year ago at this time, a state official said.

The cost of the most commonly used heating fuels has increased in Maine since the winter began, according to a Governor’s Energy Office report issued Wednesday. Since October, the statewide average per-gallon price of heating oil has increased 27 cents a gallon to $3.80, kerosene is up 26 cents to $4.20, and propane has increased 60 cents to $3.25 a gallon, it said.

Area residents who normally use firewood to heat their homes say they have been forced to turn to more expensive materials, such as pressed-wood bricks.

“There’s no seasoned wood in the area right now,” said Sherri Kinney, a Gorham resident who visited the Paris Farmers Union store in Portland Wednesday with her husband, Alan, to buy pressed-wood “BioBricks” as a substitute fuel. “It’s tough, especially for people on disability who don’t have a lot of money, like we are.”

HARSHEST WINTER IN A DECADE

This has been the coldest winter in more than a decade, according to the National Weather Service.

As of midnight Tuesday, Portland had experienced 3,569 heating degree days since July 1, according to meteorologist Tom Hawley at the National Weather Service office in Gray. That number is higher than the average over the past 30 years – 3,505 heating degree days for the same period – and much higher than during the stretch of relatively mild winters Portland has experienced over the past decade.

“It looks like ‘cold’ is the watchword,” Hawley said. “We’re just staying cold.”

The most recent season in which heating degree days exceeded 3,569 from July 1 to Jan. 22 was 2002-03, with 3,681, he said.

Heating degree days reflects energy demand for heating, and indicate how cold a winter is. The higher the number of heating degree days, the more energy is needed to warm homes and offices. The number represents the amount by which the average daily temperature has fallen below 65 degrees. For example, a day that has an average temperature of 35 would add 30 heating degree days to the season total.

The high temperature in Portland on Wednesday was 17 degrees – well below the normal high of 31 for Jan. 22.

Sub-freezing temperatures are expected to continue for at least another week, with Thursday and Friday expected to be the coldest days with highs in Portland in the mid-teens, Hawley said.

HEATING HELP NEEDED

As of Jan. 16, the Maine State Housing Authority had granted emergency heating assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to 1,222 households, up from 529 during the same period a year earlier, authority spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte said.

The unusually high demand threatens to deplete the state’s yearly allocation of federal funds, said Mike Tarpinian, president and CEO of the Opportunity Alliance, which processes heating assistance applications in Cumberland County.

“My concern is, come late February or early March, will there be any money left?” Tarpinian said.

In all, the authority has allocated about $15.5 million in regular and emergency heating assistance to more than 25,000 households, she said. That’s a little less than half the $32 million available for the entire winter.

The Opportunity Alliance usually processes about 1,000 applications for assistance each month from November through March, Tarpinian said. This year, it has been processing about 1,500 a month, he said.

“The requests are far ahead of last year,” he said.

Eligibility is based on household income. For example, a family of four must have annual income of $35,000 or less, he said.

Each qualifying household is eligible for up to about $520 each year in regular heating assistance. “In this weather, that’s 30 to 45 days (of heat),” Tarpinian said.

The housing authority, an independent, quasi-governmental agency, also grants a one-time annual emergency allotment of up to $400 per qualifying household, Turcotte said.

The authority has received calls from Mainers who already have used up both allotments for the year – regular and emergency aid – and can’t afford to heat their homes, she said. They are being advised to stay with friends and family for the rest of the season.

“Even the best-laid plans are being blown out of the water by these cold temperatures,’ Turcotte said.

FUEL SELLERS SEE SPIKE

At Paris Farmers Union in Portland, customer demand for pressed-wood bricks and wood pellets for pellet stoves has outpaced the store’s ability to restock those goods, said store manager Trunks Sutton. Coal also has been a big seller, he said.

“They’re going faster than we can keep up,” Sutton said. “We get ’em in, and they’re sold.”

He said the store currently has a waiting period of three to four days for pick-up orders and about a week for delivery orders.

Paris customer Kinney said she and her husband bought BioBricks after looking around unsuccessfully for seasoned firewood.

They even bought some firewood advertised as “semi-seasoned” on Craigslist, but it turned out to be too wet to burn. “It’s still in our garage with snow on it,” Kinney said.

Because of unusually high demand, propane, kerosene, heating oil and natural gas prices are up considerably from the beginning of winter, said Jamie Py, president and CEO of the Maine Energy Marketers Association. Propane and natural gas prices have spiked the most, he said.

Some heating oil suppliers have raised prices for their customers on monthly payment plans in anticipation of higher-than-average consumption, Py said.

While there is no shortage of supply, the problem in Maine has been transporting those fuels to all of the locations where they are being used, Py said. “We don’t have enough pipeline for everyone to use at once.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

canderson@pressherald.com

Twitter: @jcraiganderson