FIRES KILLED more than 5,000 people in American homes in 1980. Toxic smoke and gases -- not burns -- caused 78% of these deaths, according to Marion Cole, manager of public information for the National Fire Protection Association. Fires destroyed $6.25 billion in property in 1980.

Last year there were just under three million fires in the United States. Of these, 142,000 were in homes, according to Philip A. Schaenman, associate administrator for the National Fire Data Center of the U.S. Fire Administration. Schaenman was a panelist at the recent conference on energy conservation and fire safety in buildings, sponsored by the National Research Council's Building Research Advisory Board at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

Paul C. Greiner, vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, believes that these statistics can be greatly reduced if proper fire safety controls and equipment in buildings are used. These devices can easily fit in with the design, as well as the budget, of the building.

Greiner and other experts in the fields of fire research and prevention, architecture, building materials and energy discussed at the conference ways in which architects and builders could construct energy-conserving, fired-resistant homes.

Installing insulation is one of the most common ways to reduce energy cost," said panelist John O'Hagan, "but it is also a common cause of energy fires." O'Hagan, former fire commissioner of New York City and now a fire protection consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y., discussed his experience with fire problems that result from energy conservation measures.

"A lot of insulation," he explained, "is made of a fiberglass that is not flamable itself. But the fiberglass screen that retains the heat in your home, also reduces ventillation, trapping the heat and fire in your walls."

Insulation installed around hot wires is often the culprit in starting the fire, said Schaenman. Insulation installed around fireplace pipes and above fireplaces can also be dangerous.

"Bits of the insulation can drop into the fireplace and catch fire," he said. Schaenman recommends using inflamable insulation. "About 2,000 home heating-related fires are caused by insulation," according to Schaenman.

Overloaded electrical outlets overheat the wires. Using too-large light bulbs also wastes energy.

Some fires that start in the fireplace spread to the whole house via oxygen-feeding drafts which escape through holes in the chimney.

Creosote buildup (the oily liquid made from the distillation of wood tar) is yet another fire danger. Because chimney sweeps are not as common in American homes as they are overseas, creosote buildup is more prevalent here, caking the flue and constricting the chimney's opening. When creosote reaches a high temperature, said Schaenman, it behaves like a blow torch.

The frequency with which your chimney should be cleaned depends on how much use your fireplace gets and what kind of wood you use, says the "Complete Guide to Home Repair, Maintenance and Improvement," by Better Homes and Gardens (1980, the Meredith Corp.). "Hire a pro to 'sweep' your chimney or do the job yourself. To do this, open the damper and seal your fireplace opening with a wet sheet or canvas. Then wet down the soot before you clean out the firebox. This minimizes dust. Vacuum around the damper before closing it."

Don't carpet your floors up to the edge of the fireplace. Embers will land on the carpet, especially if there's no screen.

Careless installation of heating devices, particularly do-it-yourself woodstove installations, are a hazard.

According, to O'Hagan, passive solar systems, if not installed correctly, can be dangerous. Some systems can generate temperatures higher than 350 degrees. The homeowner should know the types of materials being installed and their burning points.

The experts recommended the new home fire safety equipment -- in particular, the smoke detector. "We [the fire industry] hope that smoke detectors will be mandatory for all homes built from now on. Presently, about 50 percent of homes have them," said Schaenman.

Detectors start at $10 and can run as high as $80 to $90 for a custom system. They come in two types: photoelectric units and ionization units. When smoke enters a photo-electric unit, the smoke scatters the build-in light, which causes it to contact the photocell and trigger the alarm. The ionization unit uses a radioactive source to ionize or break up the air inside the detector, giving it a small electrical charge. When the smoke particles cut down the current flow, the warning sounds. According to the NFPA, ionization detectors respond more quickly than photo-electric units to fast, flaming fires. Photoelectric units are best for smoldering fires.

Low-cost sprinkler systems for the home will be on the market soon. According to Marion Cole at the NFPA, the systems will be as common as central air and heating systems.

The ease of getting in and out of buildings can determine the success of fighting the fire, said O'Hagan. Buildings with unopenable windows and those build into hillsides or underground often have limited access for firefighters, noted O'Hagan. "If the building has only one exposed surface, that means there's only one exit. If this exit is blocked by smoke, the homeowner, as well as the firefighter, is out of options."

Reducing the air flow, O'Hagan pointed out, produces more carbon dioxide, which is fatal to the person inside. In these tight places, he added, once an opening is made to the outside, the fire will sweep through.

Skylights are another peril for the firefighter. O'Hagan said many have stepped through skylights during a fire. Cracking the skylight's glass will draw the fire upwards, buying time for the people below but adding oxygen and feeding the fire.

O'Hagan condemned the design of many buildings, saying: architects "are not trained in building fire-safe buildings. Fire safety is a low priority for many of them."

Fire safety is indeed one of the important elements architects must consider in design, according to architect nd panelist. Theodore Mariani.

The American Institute of Architects, which this year spent almost a $1 million on research and education on energy-saving design, is now beginning to turn its attention to fire and life safety, according to Mariani, president of a Washington firm of architects. Mariani, AIA energy comissioner, represented the AIA at the conference.