In this October 2022 file photo, firefighters battle a blaze in Vassalboro. Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Fire Department

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With the price of heating oil going up across the state, fire experts are concerned that residents will resort to unsafe heating practices.

The onset of winter weather means rising heating costs will stress financially strapped Mainers, but what fire officials don’t want is another year like 2021, Maine’s deadliest year for fires.

The average price for a gallon of heating oil is $5.76 in northern Maine, according to the Governor’s Energy Office. That’s a nickel more than the state average of $5.71 a gallon, and 9 cents more than in central Maine — meaning Aroostook County has the highest heating costs in the state. And what worries fire officials is the alternative heat sources some people will use to stave off those high fuel costs.

“I think the current economic status we’re in, people are going to start heating with things they’re not supposed to be heating with out of desperation,” North Lakes Fire Lt. Matt Russell said. “They’re even going to be turning to opening up some old chimneys and fireplaces they haven’t used in years.”

Easton Fire Chief Greg White has seen people resort to behaviors like turning the kitchen stove on for heat.

“We have responded to two different calls in that manner of the kitchen stove being left unattended, and it filled the house with smoke,” White said.

Luckily, both instances were quickly mitigated and didn’t result in the residents either losing or having to leave their homes. 

But a few years ago, a resident wasn’t so fortunate when a kitchen stove melted down as a result of having all the burners turned on and breaking down the electrical system, White said. 

“As the price of whatever the fuel is increases, other alternatives come on board to try to make it cheaper,” Presque Isle Fire Department Capt. Kyle Bartley said.

Once, an elderly person in Presque Isle tried to keep their home warmer by leaving all the electric burners and the oven on due to a furnace issue, Bartley said.

Electric heaters commonly aren’t much of an issue, he said. What he’s concerned about is the use of electric appliances that aren’t built for heating being used as heat sources. There are no shutoffs on many appliances if a fire were to start.

In addition, direct exhaust ventilation systems should be cleared of snow and ice to prevent carbon monoxide build up, Bartley said.

The transition from heating oil to propane has been increasing over the past three years and picking up speed, Bartley said. The cost of propane in northern Maine is $3.02 per gallon.

Bartley encouraged residents to apply for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that is offered through the Aroostook County Action Program. Even wood pellets are more expensive compared with last year, he said.

North Lakes Fire’s Russell anticipates crews will respond to more calls regarding chimney issues as more people seek to heat with wood — at $350 per cord — instead of higher priced fuel oil. Fireplaces and woodstoves are suitable for heating a home, but need to be inspected and cleaned. 

A lot will come down to preparedness and knowing about resources in the area, like Maine 211, which can connect people with financial and mental health resources. People can also try to work out a payment plan with their heating dealers and take advantage of free safety measures. 

The Easton, North Lakes, Fort Fairfield and Presque Isle fire departments work with the American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign, which offers free smoke alarms. Volunteers install smoke alarms, and the program gives them to fire departments to install in homes when residents request them.  

“Looking at our communities and doing our community risk assessments, we’ve noted it as a potential problem for this year and are trying to point our training in a certain direction to help mitigate these hazards,” Russell said.

The Easton Fire Department has installed smoke detectors in a dozen homes, and for the past 10 years the Presque Isle Fire Department’s smoke detector program includes a home safety inspection with installation. 

Older residents often need help with installation, and some of the smoke detectors fire personnel have replaced have been more than 10 years old, Bartley said.  

The Red Cross volunteers are trained in fire prevention and can point out potential home fire hazards. There are also devices for the hearing impaired, like a bed shaker that sits next to a bed and activates if a smoke alarm goes off.

Residents can request smoke alarm installation by contacting the Red Cross online or calling 1-800-464-6692.