JAY, Maine — Across the U.S., families face winter with dread as energy costs rise and fuel supplies dwindle.

The Energy Department is predicting a sharp increase in the cost of heating homes compared to last winter, and some are worried whether heating assistance programs will be able to make up the difference for struggling families. The situation is even bleaker in Europe, where Russia continues to cut natural gas supplies, pushing up prices and causing painful shortages.

In Maine, Aaron Reima saw the writing on the wall and started stocking up on 5-gallon fuel oil over the summer as prices rose. He filled the container with fuel oil as he could afford it, usually on pay days, and used the heating assistance program to top off his 275-gallon oil tank when the cold weather arrived.

His family tries not to force themselves to make a difficult decision – to choose between food and heating at home.

“It’s hard,” he said. “What are you going to choose for food, or what amount of fuel oil are you going to choose to keep warm?”

A number of factors are converging to create a bleak situation: global energy consumption has rebounded since the start of the pandemic, and supplies barely caught up before the war in Ukraine cut supplies even further.

The National Association of Energy Assistance Directors says this winter energy costs will be the highest in more than a decade.

The Energy Department predicts heating bills will jump 28% this winter for those who rely on natural gas, which is used to heat nearly half of U.S. households. It is predicted that prices for fuel oil will increase by 27%, and for electricity – by 10%, the agency reports.

This comes amid inflation accelerating last month with consumer prices rising 6.6%, the fastest pace in four decades.

The pain will be especially acute in New England, which relies heavily on fuel oil to keep homes warm. The average home is projected to cost more than $2,300 to heat with fuel oil this winter, the Energy Department said.

Across the country, some are calling for utilities to impose a moratorium on winter shutdowns, and members of Congress have already added $1 billion in heating aid. But there will be fewer federal dollars than last year, when pandemic aid came in.

In Jay, where Ryma lives with his partner Lucinda Tyler and their 8-year-old son, residents were already bracing for the worst even before the local paper mill announced it was closing, putting more than 200 people out of work. This could wreak havoc on the city budget and cause property taxes to rise, further draining residents’ budgets.

Both Rayma and Tyler work full-time. He works 70-80 hours a week in an orthopedist’s office, while she works from home serving shareholders at a financial services company. They don’t qualify for special benefits, even as they scrape by to keep up with repairs, buy gas and put food on the table — and heat their 100-year-old home in a state known for bitter cold.

“We work a lot of hours, but it doesn’t seem like it’s enough,” said Tyler, who wept with relief when she learned they were eligible for even a modest amount of heating assistance.

Last month, Congress appropriated $1 billion in funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, bringing the total to at least $4.8 billion and providing additional heating assistance for the start of the winter season.

The third-hottest summer on record has already put a strain on LIHEAP funding, “so I’m glad we were able to secure these new resources before the winter cold hits,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

But that level represents an overall decline from last year, when federal aid from the pandemic pushed the total energy aid package to $8 billion.

Some seek help who have never done so in the past. In Auburn, Maine, Mario Zula, 72, said he’s worked all his life and never asked for help until last year, when he got help for his heating last year. The program helped to upgrade his heating system.

“It came to us at a time when we needed it the most,” Zula said.

Mark Wolf, NEADA’s executive director, said he fears the federally funded program will not be enough because of the high cost of energy and continued volatility in energy markets. He said it could be even worse if the winter is particularly cold.

“The crisis is coming,” he said. “There are a lot of uncertainties and factors that could drive these prices up.”

Maine has the nation’s oldest population and is the most dependent on fuel oil, creating a double whammy.

“People are scared. They are worried. They’re frustrated,” said Lisa McGee, who coordinates Community Concepts Inc.’s heating assistance program. in Lewiston, Maine. “More anxiety this year.”