President Bill Clinton declared most of Maine a disaster area Tuesday, as the state’s largest power company suffered setbacks in its drive to restore electricity to more than 275,000 Mainers.

Clinton’s declaration means that the state government and 15 of the state’s 16 counties can be reimbursed for up to 75 percent of the $6.2 million they have spent cleaning up after last week’s historic ice storm. Only Aroostook County was excluded.

Vice President Al Gore will visit Maine on Thursday to view destruction in Augusta and Lewiston, two of the areas hardest hit by the ice storm.

But none of the funds can be used to pay for the $30 million in estimated damages suffered by the state’s two largest utilities, Central Maine Power Co. and Bangor Hydro-Electric Co.

While the promise of federal assistance heartened state officials, Tuesday was largely a day of setbacks in the effort to bring power back to Maine residents. Storm-related problems on Tuesday included:

A small winter storm that swept through the state, slowing efforts to restore power to CMP customers. Though the storm was relatively minor, it caused downed transmission lines in areas that were already hard-hit.

More reports of people suffering carbon monoxide poisoning after using gas generators to power their homes. In central Maine alone, there were 11 new cases, bringing the total since the start of the storm to at least 153. No serious injuries or deaths were reported in the latest incidents.

A spate of potentially dangerous chimney fires, particularly in Oxford County. No one was hurt, but one family in Woodstock was left homeless and fire officials warned people to be careful.

By late Tuesday afternoon, nearly one in five Mainers – 276,000 people – still had no electricity. And the pace of restoring it had slowed significantly because of the new outages. As some people were reconnected, others lost their power.

Only 12,000 Central Maine Power Co. customers – 30,000 people – got their power back Tuesday. The number of reconnected customers marked a big drop from the 44,000 customers, or 101,200 people, who had electricity restored on Monday.

“Even though we had a huge work force out there, we suffered new outages and the net result is that it doesn’t look like we made much progress, ” said Mark Ishkanian, CMP spokesman.

In all, 112,000 CMP customers – 257,600 people – ended Tuesday in the dark. The number of people without power was much lower in northern Maine, where 12,000 Bangor Hydro customers – 18,400 people – were without electricity by the end of the day.

To make matters worse, utility officials warned the poor progress reconnecting customers could extend into today because of more bad weather.

Heavy winds across the state, with gusts of up to 30 mph, could topple more tree limbs onto power lines and create more outages.

Tuesday also saw a rise in the number of Bell Atlantic telephone users reporting that their phones did not work – from 6,543 Monday to 7,147.

The increase probably occurred because people staying away from their homes had returned and discovered they had no telephone service, said Daniel Breton, Bell Atlantic’s director of public affairs.

“We’re hoping those numbers will level off soon, ” Breton said.

DAMAGE INCREASING

Officials did not calculate new figures for the potential damages from the storm. They said the costs could be higher than the previous estimate of $36 million – most of it damage to utilities.

Neither CMP nor Bangor Hydro has insurance to cover the storm damage, and both could seek emergency rate increases, said Stephen Ward, public advocate for Maine’s electricity users. The federal funds released by the disaster declaration can’t be used to assist private companies.

But the federal funding will pay for about 75 percent of the $6.2 million in costs that municipalities and the state have paid to clean up after the storm.

Those costs are expected to rise, but officials won’t start calculating them until power is restored to most parts of Maine, said Dennis Bailey, spokesman for Gov. Angus King.

WEATHER COMPLICATIONS

The weather is making the job of restoring power more difficult.

Today, wind chills are expected to make the temperature seem like it is below zero, said Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray. That will mean tough conditions outside for more than 1,500 utility workers from as far away as Delaware.

But utility company officials were most concerned about winds from 15 mph to 20 mph and higher gusts that were expected to arrive in Maine about midnight. Although heavy wind can help knock ice off trees so they no longer pose a threat to power lines, it also can create big problems. “The down side is that they can make ice still in the trees fall almost like a cascade, a mini-avalanche, ” said Ishkanian, the CMP spokesman. “When it hits lower branches it can be just enough to cause those branches to shear and knock over other trees onto power lines.”

Precipitation from Tuesday’s storm downed key transmission lines in the Augusta, Farmington and Lewiston areas, Ishkanian said. Along with Bridgton, they are the centers of the largest numbers of customers without power.

Residents felt the impact quickly. Before one transmission line went down, 4,500 customers in the Farmington area – 10,350 people – were without power. After the mishap, that number went up to 8,500 customers, or 19,550 people, in the dark.

Several new outages also occurred Tuesday when commercial truck drivers took their rigs on closed roads and crashed through low power wires, Ishkanian said.

And line workers using 750 donated telephones were having trouble making contact with supervisors because of the heavy volume of cellular phone use in central Maine.

CMP officials pleaded with cellular phone users to limit their calling time so power can be restored more quickly.

“When we can’t get through, it bogs down trying to tell people where to go next and what equipment they will need, ” Ishkanian said.

FRUSTRATION GROWS

The long wait to get back electricity was becoming brutal for many people. Sgt. Allyson Cox of the Maine National Guard felt it as she talked with worried Mainers who called the Maine Emergency Management Agency in Augusta.

“We’re starting to hear the sound of desperation in their voices, ” Cox said. “The people in these small towns just haven’t seen any progress. They’re saying, `Can’t you get somebody out here to fix the electricity?’ “

For many homeowners Tuesday was either the sixth or seventh full day without electricity.

“I think people today are just feeling really depressed and at the end of their ropes, ” said Betsy Long, whose Augusta neighborhood lost power in the early morning hours Thursday.

Particularly frustrating was the lack of concrete information from Central Maine Power Co. about when their lines might be repaired, Long said.

In Harrison, where most of the town has been without power, residents wondering when their electricity will return have flooded the town hall with phone calls. But the town hasn’t heard a word from CMP and has no answers for residents, said Judy Colburn, deputy clerk.

“The people think we have an `in’ to what’s happening, but we don’t, ” she said.

Some people in rural areas, like Patty Rodway of Gray, said they’re resigned to the fact that their homes are in low-priority areas for CMP’s line crews.

Rodway, who lives with her husband and three children on Totten Road, said she still has downed power lines in her front yard. She called CMP to report them, but has yet to see any repair crews.

“We’re hoping . . . and waiting, ” said Rodway, whose family has also been without running water for five days. “Just to take a shower and flush the toilet would be heaven right now.”

Ishkanian said CMP is doing the best it can under the circumstances. Officials hope most people will have power by the end of the weekend but believe they will still be working to correct problems next week.

“There’s no question that people are frustrated and angry, ” Ishkanian said. “But I’m seeing how hard these guys are working to get power back and I think that 95 percent of the people out there are too.”

NATIONAL GUARD AT WORK

About 200 Maine National Guard members were expected to work through Friday, transporting generators to shelters, removing debris with chain saws and heavy equipment and helping provide other supplies and services to communities.

Attorney General Andrew Ketterer said Tuesday that his office had received reports of several employers who had told employees they might lose their jobs by going on emergency Guard duty.

Doing so is against the law, said Ketterer, who promised to “consider invoking civil remedies and instituting criminal proceedings against employers who violate the relevant statutes.”

About 115 shelters remained open late Monday afternoon, and 2,116 people had sought refuge, slightly more than the 2,100 who used shelters Monday night.

More people were expected to go to shelters later Tuesday as temperatures dropped into the teens and single numbers.

CHIMNEY FIRES INCREASE

Many people accustomed to simply turning a dial to raise the heat have started using wood stoves for the first time in years, sometimes with disastrous results.

On Tuesday, officials warned of a major increase in chimney fires since the storm hit. No injuries have been reported, but a chimney fire Monday in the Oxford County town of Woodstock left a family homeless after flames spread into the walls around the chimney, said Mary Bonang, a dispatcher with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department.

There were eight chimney fires in Oxford County in a 24-hour period ending late Tuesday morning, said Bonang.

Normally, there are no more than two or three on a very cold day, she said.

“You have a lot of people burning wood who don’t usually but are desperate for heat, ” Bonang said. “They’re burning green wood that they shouldn’t or using chimneys full of creosote that haven’t been touched for years.”

The danger of fires turning deadly was also high because it is taking firefighters longer to respond, Bonang said. To get to a fire in remote areas, they have to get by downed tree branches on icy roads.

Meanwhile, in central Maine, a new spate of non-fatal carbon monoxide poisonings highlighted the potential dangers faced by people using gasoline-powered generators as electricity sources.

Eleven new cases were reported Tuesday, bringing the state’s total since last Wednesday to 153. Two people have died of carbon monoxide poisoning since the storm began.

Maine’s overall death toll from the storm still stood at three on Tuesday.

ASSESSING THE DAMAGE

In some of the hardest-hit communities, officials were starting to assess the damage.

The Sagadahoc County communities of Topsham and Richmond were among the hardest hit by the ice storm, with total property damages estimated at close to $1 million by local officials.

About 1,500 people in Richmond – almost half the population – were still without power Tuesday.

Richmond shelters were expected to remain open indefinitely. Emergency directors from both towns were hopeful they would qualify for federal disaster relief.

Topsham’s emergency management director, Mike Labbe, said Topsham sustained damages of close to a half million dollars. The hardest-hit neighborhood: Cathance Road, with about 80 homes. Its residents were without power Tuesday with little hope of having it restored by the weekend.

A drive along the winding country road showed why. Tree limbs were down in nearly every yard. At Cathance Road and East School House Crossing, a power transformer hung at half-staff, snapped from the top of a wooden pole. Most trees that had fallen across the road had been removed by residents or town crews.

“It was like a war zone a day or two ago, ” Labbe said.

Also on Cathance Road, a home was damaged by fire Saturday, the result of a malfunctioning generator. Labbe estimated about 30 percent of the town, whose population is around 10,000, was still without power Tuesday.

In Richmond, power was restored to the village by noon Monday. Police Chief Christopher Fyfe, who doubles as the town’s emergency management director, estimated 1,500 people were without power Tuesday.

Shelters at the American Legion Hall on Carding Machine Road and at the fire station will remain open indefinitely. Though the numbers of people staying at the Legion Hall had dwindled to two families by Tuesday, Fyfe said many families were eating meals at the shelter. Shower facilities were being made available at Richmond High School.

“Up until noon Monday, this community was in dire straits, ” Town Manager Phil Nadeau said. “We were 100 percent without power until noon.”

That is when power was finally restored to the village, the first lights to come on since the ice storm wiped out power last week. Numerous roads had to be closed after the storm hit, but by Tuesday every road was passable.

During the outage, Sharon Woodward, a town office worker, had town office phone calls routed to her home.

“Today, we’ve been experiencing periodic flickers. We’re not out of the woods yet, ” Nadeau said.

Staff writers Dennis Hoey, David Hench, Andrew Russell and Meredith Goad contributed to this report.