Southwestern Community Services generally serves approximately 4,000 clients each year through their fuel assistance program. This year, they received 4,600 applications before the program technically opened on Thursday, according to Keith Thibault, chief development officer.
“What we’re just seeing now is an indication that a much more intense need is coming,” he said. “I don’t want to be too dramatic, but we’ve never seen this before. This is unprecedented in terms of cost.”
Thibault said CAP agencies have been working to prepare for the difficult season, and hope more people will connect with them to apply for help.
“We’ve tried to be really realistic about what this is going to be,” he said. “I think we’ve hit rock bottom.”
Ryan Clouthier, chief operating officer at Southern New Hampshire Services, said his organization is also seeing an increase in need. They also saw people vote for the new state emergency energy assistance programs approved in September, which raised the income cap for Granite Staters seeking help with heating costs.
Last winter, New Hampshire received much more money from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also called LIHEAP, than it had in the winter of 2020-2021. The state received less money from the federal government this year, but has about $19 million left over from last year, according to the Energy Department. That means there is more money available through the LIHEAP program this year than the state has spent in each of the past winters, the department said.
Extra funding for LIHEAP and the additional state program will help, Clouthier said. The funding for the weatherization aid, which was recently approved by the state, can help the households to reduce their costs in the long run.
“But there’s always a need for more,” Clouthier said.
Granite Staters can apply for help with heating and electric bills through their local community action agency; You can find your local CAP agency here.
Wood banks, where granite states can get extra wood for the winter, are also expecting extra demand this year.
About 1 in 14 households in New Hampshire use wood as their main source of heat, according to the Energy Information Administration. That is four times the national average.
Melissa Gallagher is the executive director of the Grapevine Family and Community Resource Center in Antrim. She says most people get to their wood bank before the state’s gasoline assistance program starts — or after it expires.
This year, she says, more people are on hand to help their neighbors through the winter.
“More people contacted us than usual to offer wood. And I think there was just that recognition in the community that this is going to be a tough year for heating homes.
About 80 volunteers showed up in Hopkinton for a volunteer day to support the Sean Powers Wood Bank earlier this month, said Mary Congoran, who runs the project.
“It was just beautiful,” she said.
Congoran says that even residents who use other heat sources may supplement with wood as the price of other heating fuels increases. According to federal data, the price of heating oil — the most common source of heating in the state — is higher than it has been in at least three decades.
“We’re just anxious to get into the fall because I just feel like anyone who has the ability to burn something is going to do it,” she said.
Congoran’s wood bank has started bringing cords of wood to transfer stations in Andover, Salisbury, Sutton and Bradford, saying visitors can take an armful with them and donate as they can.
New grants are available from the US Forest Service and the Alliance for Green Heat to support firewood banks this winter.
Preparation of a fireplace
As more Granite Staters look to save money by burning wood this winter, companies that clean and repair fireplaces say they’re seeing an increase in demand.
“The busy season started extra early and we’ve just been flat out for months,” said Matt Mair, who owns Black Moose Chimney and Stove. “We now book at least two months in advance, even with extra people and extra trucks on the road.”
Mair says he has seen customers turn to alternative heat sources such as wood stoves as the price of oil becomes unsustainable for many, and heating sources such as propane, natural gas and electricity also increase in cost.
The influx of people turning to wood heat this year has brought particular challenges.
“We see a lot of people trying to make functional fireplaces that require a lot of work,” he said. “A lot of people are just trying to revive some pretty old and kind of sketchy systems.”
It’s important to make sure chimneys are clean and in reasonable shape, Mair said, because the chimney protects a home from the heat that a wood stove produces. The dirtier and more neglected a chimney is, the more likely a house is to catch fire.
Mair, who is vice president of the National Guild of Chimney Sweeps, said companies across the state and country are seeing the same increase in demand, which comes at a time when hiring is also a challenge.