MILWAUKEE — Some low-income residents have been coping with frigid temperatures by heating their homes with stoves and candles, but an accident over the weekend that led to 13 people being sickened by carbon monoxide prompted the state Monday to remind residents it can help pay their heating bills.
Wisconsin is enduring one of its coldest winters in decades, and forecasts call for temperatures to dip again this week — with highs in the single digits and wind chills plunging as low as minus 35 Wednesday in northwestern Wisconsin.
When temperatures get cold, some poorer residents are tempted to save money by taking hazardous short cuts, officials said. For example, fire crews in Madison, Fond du Lac and elsewhere have responded to fires caused by unattended candles, which investigators suspect were being used as a heat source.
And in Trempealeau County on Sunday, one household used a charcoal grill indoors for heat. The grill released carbon monoxide that sickened five children and eight adults, including a responding police officer. The conditions of the 13 weren't immediately released Monday.
State officials say poorer residents shouldn't have to resort to unsafe methods. Wisconsin's Home Energy Assistance Program is designed to provide free assistance to households that are at 60 percent of state median-income guidelines. That works out to an annual income of $47,485 for a family of four.
So far about 165,000 Wisconsin households have received assistance this year, said Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration. That's about 5,000 more households than at this time last year, and the average benefit of $301 is significantly higher than last year's average payment of $219.
"Heating assistance is based on people's eligibility and heating bills," she said. "It could be that people have higher heating costs because of the colder weather."
If this seems like one of the coldest winters in memory, it's not just your imagination. The National Weather Service said Milwaukee and Madison, the two cities for which it has statistics dating back to the late 1800s, haven't been this cold in at least 30 years.
The weather service averaged high and low temperatures for both cities from Dec. 1 through Sunday. It found the average temperature in Milwaukee has been 17.5 degrees, the coldest since the winter of 1981-82 and the 12th coldest in city history. Madison has averaged a chilly 14.1 degrees, which ties for its 14th coldest winter and rivals the average 12.7 degrees of 1978-79.
"With the cold temperatures coming up this week we'll probably be moving up in those rankings by the end of the month," weather service meteorologist Sarah Marquardt said.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said it doesn't have statistics on the number of deaths or injuries associated with unsafe heating techniques such as stoves and candles.
To assist in battling the cold, the state Department of Administration's division of energy services announced an additional $500,000 last week for the Keep Wisconsin Warm Fund. The statewide nonprofit provides energy-related crisis assistance for propane households.
The state had already given the fund $1 million last month. With the additional money the state directed the fund to raise its eligibility requirements to include those making 80 percent of the state median income, up from 60 percent.
For more information:
Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program: 866-HEATWIS (866-432-8947)
Keep Wisconsin Warm Fund: 800-891-9276