By Senator Russell Black
AUGUSTA – With fuel oil prices running an average of $2 more per gallon than just a year ago, there’s already an understandable amount of anxiety among residents across the state as we approach the winter season. Other forms of heating fuels are also showing double-digit increases.
About 60 percent of homes in Maine use fuel oil for heating, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And if you’re a homeowner or renter who uses fuel oil as your primary heating source, you don’t have to do a lot of math to realize you’re in a tough spot.
For example, let’s say you burn 1,000 gallons of fuel oil per season for a typically sized home. During the 2021-2022 season, the average price ranged from $2.68/gal. until it spiked to $4.88/gal. in March amid the Russian invasion into Ukraine. In terms of raw dollars, it means you spent $3,180 for fuel oil over the course of last winter.
Now sitting 74% higher than last year and 114% higher than two years ago – yes, those same 1,000 gallons cost you $2,148 during the 2020-2021 season – you’re already on track to spend $4,600 without factoring in the incremental price increases we typically see through peak winter demand. When measured in dollars per million BTUs, we’re spending $33.10/MBTU today versus $19.04/MBTU a year ago.
Meanwhile, electricity and other petroleum-based derivatives such as natural gas, propane and kerosene are also seeing 30-40% year-over-year increases, while cordwood and wood pellets have been more moderate. Still, the sticker shock of the first tank fill-up for the season will undoubtedly tempt some Mainers to seek alternate ways to heat their homes; and that can result in disastrous, unintended consequences.
I’ve already heard from a fair number of fire officials who fear the financial pressures of heating a home through alternative means like we saw at the tail end of last winter will lead to more fires, smoke damage and in some cases even gas explosions and deaths.
In fact, Maine averages about 3,500 fires a year; and about 280 of them are caused by heating related issues, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety (DPS). The most common heating related cause is combustibles too close to a heating device. Heating-related fires in the state are second only to those related to cooking and have held that dubious distinction for over 20 years.
And DPS data shows that last year was the deadliest year since 2014 with 27 fire fatalities recorded across the state. There have been 15 so far this year.
A fast-moving house fire in Avon in May destroyed the structure and two vehicles when a burning ember escaped while the resident was loading a wood stove.
A farmhouse in Abbot was destroyed when an indoor wood stove’s pipe sparked an internal wall fire, resulting in a backdraft that engulfed the home within minutes and endangered the responding firefighters.
Residents in Unity avoided a catastrophe in January when a passerby happened to see their chimney on fire and firefighters extinguished it before it spread. Yet another chimney fire that month, this time in Paris, destroyed a family’s house and killed their pet beagle.
And just last week, a wood stove chimney fire in Wilton damaged a home but was thankfully extinguished by firefighters who responded from three departments.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), heating equipment is the second-leading cause of home fires and injuries and responsible for about 42,000 residential fires annually. Such equipment is also the third-leading cause of home fire deaths in the U.S., next to smoking materials and candles. About half of all fires occur during the months of December, January and February; and most home heating fire deaths involved stationary or portable space heaters.
In fact, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that portable electric heaters are involved in approximately 1,700 fires per year, resulting in about 80 deaths, hundreds of injuries and millions of dollars in property losses. And many of these fires could have been avoided by taking proper safety precautions.
And therein lies the problem. Most people aren’t familiar with how wood or pellet stoves operate or the consequences of burning wet or green firewood that can lead to creosote buildup in your chimney. Even the improper use of gas or electric stoves, electric blankets, kerosene heaters and candles can be deadly.
If you plan to use a portable space heater this winter, remember to ditch the extension cord and keep at least a three-foot radius clear of flammable objects. For everything else, learn the proper way to use heating equipment to heat your home correctly, including screens for fireplaces and carbon monoxide detectors. And if you leave the house, shut it off.
For more information and other safety tips, visit NFPA’s website.
Senator Russell Black is in his second term in the Maine Senate and represents District 17. He is the Senate Republican Lead for the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife committees.