BY NOW THE relative balm of this month has sent the groundhog to an optometrist and the almanac writers back to drafting appointment calendars. But brace yourselves: cold is coming. And though most of us have adjusted marvelously to the sound of silence where the furnace dwells, in no time fuel bills will be right back up there. For many, keeping warm is a considerable investment; for others, it is a losing financial battle, made all the more frightening by the prospect of no heat at all. Yet thanks to the generous people and businesses throughout Greater Washington, there is important, special help for those families who cannot meet their heat payments -- and still more could be provided.

This is the second year of the Washington Area Fuel Fund, which last year raised $522,000 -- mostly from people who added contributions to their own utility-bill payments -- that was distributed to 2,160 households and about 7,000 people around the region. Significantly, this money is returned as recipients pay their delinquent bills. To be eligible, a single person's income must be less than $9,110, a couple's less than $12,260 and that of a family of four less than $18,560.

There were more than 56,000 individuals and businesses contributing to the fund, which was initiated and is cosponsored by the Washington Gas Light Co., which donated $125,000, and administered by the Salvation Army. Other sponsors include WDVM-TV9 and WMAL-Radio. Money goes to families regardless of whether they heat by gas, oil, electricity or other means.

This year the organizers hope to raise $750,000. Tax-deductible contributions may be made along with regular payments to Washington Gas or to Pepco, or they may be sent to Box 1999, Washington 20013. With strong support, the Washington Area Fuel Fund could extend even more help than it did last year. Let's hope that happens.