It may be spring, but fuel assistance officials still expect to receive more requests from people who can’t heat their homes.

Natural gas and electric customers who haven’t paid their bills will no longer be protected from being shut off after March 31, according to Ryan Clouthier, energy director for Southern New Hampshire Services.

A bitter cold winter with below-average temperatures means more New Hampshire residents are asking for last-minute assistance, Clouthier said.

It’s not unusual for some people to apply for assistance in April after a long, tough winter, according to Clouthier and Celeste Lovett, fuel assistance program manager for the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.

“There are households that have made it through March and just can’t get through April,” Lovett said. “Don’t wait until you get a disconnect note.”

Earlier this week, Clouthier announced low-income residents have until April 30 to apply for what’s left of the $25.5 million in assistance available to New Hampshire this year. The money is available through the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

After March 31, there is always a surge in utility customers requesting assistance, he said.

“That’s when we see a big rush,” Clouthier said. “After that March 31 date, we see an application increase of about 10 to 15 percent.”

Approximately 150 Rockingham County residents who have made appointments to come into Clouthier’s office before the deadline to apply for assistance, he said,

Clouthier said he’s received 4,870 requests for assistance from county residents, with five weeks to ago. More than 5,260 residents applied for help a year ago.

He said he doesn’t want to see needy residents left out in the cold just because they are strapped to pay their heating bills.

“The demand has definitely been high this year,” Clouthier said. “People are using a lot more fuel this winter. It’s been a difficult winter. “

That’s no exaggeration, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Kistner in Gray, Maine.

As of Monday, March is on track to be the second or third coldest on record, with an average daily temperature of 23.8 degrees, Kistner said.

It’s 8.1 degrees below normal. The coldest March on record was in 1885, when the daily average temperature was 23.5 degrees.

“It’s been a cold one,” he said.

There have been below-average temperatures the entire winter, he said. December was 3.3 degrees below average; January, 1.1 degrees below normal; and December, 4.9 degrees below average, Kistner said.

Lovett said an extremely cold winter can definitely affect the number of people who apply for fuel assistance.

“Certainly, the weather has been a big factor,” she said.

There are 33,559 New Hampshire households certified to receive assistance, she said. The state helped 36,805 households last year.

Households receive between $120 and $975, with an average payment of $725.

Decreased federal funding in the last five years and tougher eligibility requirements make it more difficult provide fuel assistance, according to Lovett.

In 2008-2009, New Hampshire received $50.9 million in fuel assistance, according to the Office of Energy and Planning.

That amount dropped to $36 million by 2010-2011, and to $25.5 million this year.

To apply for assistance in the Derry area, call 965-3029. In the Salem area, call 893-9172.

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