At the Fuel Fund of Maryland in Baltimore, the calls from people seeking help heating their homes this winter are already coming in.

Executive Director Mary Ellen Vanni said she recently spoke with a woman living on a $1,000-a-month pension who learned that 100 gallons of oil, which lasts her about a month, would cost $279, up from $151 last year.

"This is a woman who has never gotten help from the Fuel Fund in the past," Vanni said. "This is just the beginning."

The cost of heating a home could rise by nearly 50 percent this year, presenting challenges to a growing number of Marylanders.

The price of natural gas, the primary fuel for home heat in the state, was rising before hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted pipelines and processing plants in the Gulf Coast region. Oil prices also have been at record highs.

State officials and advocates for the poor are urging residents to conserve heating fuel and to seek assistance if they think they will need it.

"Our main concern with rising costs is, how are people going to cope this winter?" said Mary Lou Kueffer, director of the Office of Home Energy Programs in the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Her office's Maryland Energy Assistance Program provided $33 million in fuel assistance grants to 83,000 low-income households last winter. The grants are given on a sliding scale, paying up to 80 percent of fuel costs for the poorest families.

"The way gas and oil prices have skyrocketed, we feel people who haven't applied in the past will be pushed into applying this year," Kueffer said.

The 338,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers in Anne Arundel and Howard counties can expect increases of 35 to 50 percent over last year's bills, officials have said. The average cost for Washington Gas's 415,000 customers in Montgomery, Prince George's, St. Mary's, Calvert and Frederick counties is expected to rise 20 to 32 percent.

Last year, a typical customer paid about $960 during the six-month heating season, Washington Gas officials said. This year, the same customer would expect to pay $1,131 to $1,274, depending on the weather's severity.

"This is a larger increase than our customers have experienced previously," spokesman Tim Sergeant said.

Utility costs consumed almost 20 percent of the incomes of poor families last winter, according to the Maryland Alliance for the Poor. The burden will especially increase this year for the 250,000 families and senior citizens living at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level -- for instance, with a monthly gross income of $2,419 or less for a family of four.

"Many seniors have to choose between food, utilities and medicine," said Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities in Maryland. "Their choices, on a very limited income, can be very difficult. It's a significant issue.''

For those who do not qualify for the state energy grant or who have exhausted their government energy assistance, additional help may be available. BGE customers are being told to seek assistance from the Fuel Fund of Maryland.

Washington Gas customers are being referred to the Washington Area Fuel Fund, established by Washington Gas two decades ago and administered by the Salvation Army.

"If you have difficulty paying your bills," said Sergeant of Washington Gas, "please, please contact us right away."