LOUDON, N.H. -- Ric Winters took his children out to cut down a tree. But instead of decorating it for Christmas, they used it for firewood.
Nearly out of heating oil last week, the single father of six grew nervous waiting for the federal assistance he had applied for.
"I didn't have money to buy fuel, so I went out in my yard and cut some trees down," he said. "For the last three weeks, I've used the wood stove."
Predicted increases in heating costs this year are as sharp as the pointy icicles hanging from snow-covered roofs: Heating oil costs are nearly 30 percent higher this winter than last, and natural gas prices are 40 percent higher, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates.
Less than a week into winter, agencies that help the poor pay for heat are swamped with applications. At the Home Energy Assistance Program office in Buffalo, N.Y., the line often wraps around the building and many people are told to come back later.
"You have to go outside and tell some single mom who took the day off from work to wait outside in the cold that she needs to take another day off next week," said the program's Nicole Williams, whose office sees about 200 people a day. "That's a hard thing to do."
High crude oil prices and low inventories pushed heating oil prices to a nationwide average of $1.56 a gallon toward the end of last week, said Jonathan Cogan of the federal Energy Information Administration. That compares with $1.12 a year ago at this time.
For natural gas customers, the problem is mismatched supply and demand. For the last few years, supply was flat or declined because low prices gave producers little incentive to drill, Cogan said. Meanwhile, demand increased as more utilities turned to natural gas. Wholesale prices that were as low as $2 per thousand cubic foot a year ago are now between $9 and $20.
Drilling is expanding, but it won't help those who are struggling now, especially in places where cold weather arrived faster than usual.
In St. Paul, Minn., single mother of three Collette Moriarity asked for energy assistance for the first time in November, when her furnace broke down. A local agency helped replace the furnace, but she still faces hefty fuel bills.
"This last bill was almost $300. I couldn't believe it! Thank God it's not due until January, or we wouldn't have Christmas," she said. "You shouldn't be nervous to open your mail, but I was nervous."
The Colorado Energy Assistance Foundation had to hire temporary workers to answer phones after the state had its coldest November in 120 years. The stories they hear are heart-wrenching.
"They're giving up medications and cutting into their food budgets," said development director Larry Kinnaird. "It's difficult for the average person to understand."
Even heating with wood is expensive this winter. A salesman at one New Hampshire wood stove shop said some customers are paying $200 for a cord of wood, compared with about $130 last winter.
"Some people seem to think wood would be a lot cheaper," said Natalie Davidson, whose husband owns a logging and firewood company west of Denver. "I think they're trying to find the best deal they can."
Others are dealing the best they can with what they have.
In Toledo, Ohio, Anita Hollingsworth said she and her boyfriend are trying several ways of coping after her natural gas bill quadrupled to $125 last month.
"About the only thing we can do is keep the temperature down, keep the plastic on the windows and keep more blankets on the bed," she said.
The elderly on fixed incomes have been hit especially hard.
Gas bills in Georgia are expected to be up 60 percent this winter, and in Toccoa, Howard and Annie Lou Littlefield turn their heat off as often as they can. Otherwise, they set their thermostat at 68 degrees.
"That's about as low as you can set that," Annie Lou Littlefield said. "I always wear sweaters in the house. But we've got some age on us, and we have to stay warm to keep us from getting a cold."
Juan de Dios Cepeda, 75, worries about the cost of natural gas in Los Angeles, where bills are expected to rise sharply this month.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said through a translator as he ate a subsidized lunch at the St. Barnabas Senior Services Center. "I'll have to spend less on clothes, on food. Less, less, less."
After paying a $37 gas bill in November, 84-year-old Catherine Jury of Belvidere, Ill., thought her December bill for $142.87 was a mistake. Jury, a widow, has lived in her house since 1945 and was never so surprised by a bill.
A note on the bill advised residents to contact the Salvation Army if they needed help, but Jury said she probably will turn to her children instead.
"I'm sure there are people who need it in other ways more than I do," she said.
Back in New Hampshire, Winters also was reluctant to ask for help, but felt he had no choice.
"I was brought up to take care of my own business," he said. "But I had to take fuel assistance. There is no other way I could do it."
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