AUGUSTA (AP) – As heating oil prices soar to record levels, fire officials worry that Maine households may be forced to resort to dangerous alternatives in order to keep warm.

The state recorded a dozen fire deaths last year, the fewest ever as a percentage of Maine’s population. But during the first two months of 2008, there already have been five fire deaths.

The official cause for most of those fires has never been determined, but State Fire Marshal John Dean said it’s likely that three of the deaths were related to heating systems.

Dean said high oil prices have often prompted people on tight budgets to turn to less-safe heating alternatives, such as old space heaters that should have been discarded long ago or wood stoves attached to uninspected chimneys.

Dean, who joined the Old Town Fire Department naerly 37 years ago, recalled an increase in fire deaths when fuel prices spiked during the 1970s. During that decade, he said, it was not unuual to have more than 50 fire deaths a year.

Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette said he shares Dean’s concerns about the growing use of unsafe heating sources.

“We have certainly had a lot of close calls,” Audette said. “Fortunately, for the most part, we have nipped them in the bud.”

He said potential dangers range from the threat of fire from the use of kitchen stoves as a heat source to the release of deadly carbon monoxide from unvented kerosene heaters.

Maine’s decades-long decline in fire deaths has been attributed in large part to the use of smoke alarms. Officials also say fewer smokers, better building standards and fire education have also had an impact.

Greater use of sprinkler systems could reduce the fire death toll even further, Assistant Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said.

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