Odds are that firewood sales are going to go through the roof this November and December as people conclude that, even if the sky may not fall on Jan. 1, 2000, the power might go off. For a few hours. Maybe even for days.

Not to stoke anxieties, but power blackouts do happen--especially in winter. You don't have to think back further than last January when frigid, icy weather swept through the metropolitan area, causing widespread power outages.

Lots of folks weathered that storm by heating their homes with fireplaces. So preparing for something similar this year, smart homeowners should take two steps: Make sure fireplaces are ready for a heavy-duty season, and stock up on firewood without getting ripped off.

Draft Dodgers?

If your mental image of a chimney sweep is paused on those sooty, Cockney-talkin' roof-dancers in "Mary Poppins," snap out of it. In fact, this is the busy time of year for both professional and phony chimney sweeps.

"Suddenly their numbers increase dramatically," Greg Williamson, executive director of the Indianapolis-based Chimney Safety Institute of America and the National Chimney Sweep Guild, says of upstart and scam-artist sweeps. "They are opportunists. They go out, maybe they get a vacuum and a brush, and they set up shop. But they're not trained or experienced."

Guild-certified chimney sweeps take continuing classes and pass a test every three years, says Williamson. They know how to check for nests, creosote build-up and other blockages in chimneys that can cause smoke problems, chimney fires and carbon monoxide poisoning. They can repair damaged chimneys. And they've signed a code of ethics.

"Someone who hasn't been trained is going to come in, sweep, take their check and leave," says Williamson, explaining that evaluating chimney performance is important. "A certified sweep is going to see a cracked tile, or maybe find that the chimney is not drafting properly."

Consumers should check fliers and ads for sweeps who are CSIA-certified, visit the Institute's Web site (http://www.csia.org/homeowners.html) to search its "Sweeps Locator" by state or area code, or call CSIA at 800-536-0118.

Hot Topic: Firewood

An unprecedented increase in firewood demand is going to result in more rip-offs than usual--in a market that already has more than its share. So firewood buyers beware. Not every "cord" of wood delivered is a full cord; not all advertised "seasoned hardwood" is seasoned or hardwood.

"It's up to the consumer to make sure that what you think you are getting, you are actually getting," says Marion Horsley, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) in Richmond, the agency that investigates its state's firewood-purchase complaints.

Not getting the cord stacked properly on delivery is the most common mistake consumers make, says Horsely. But there are plenty of other firewood scams. Among VDACS's tips for avoiding them:

* Once the wood is delivered and stacked, don't pay until you've measured it. Bulk firewood is sold by the cord (currently about $150 for seasoned hardwood). A full, tightly stacked cord measures 4 feet wide, 4 feet high and 8 feet long, for instance. Or 2-by-4-by-16 feet. No matter how you stack it, a true cord equals 128 cubic feet (width times height times length).

* Firewood dealers who insist on delivering the goods after dark or when customers aren't home are probably cheats.

* Don't pay a full-cord price for a "face cord," a "city cord," a "rack," a "pile," or any other euphemism for a cord.

* Demand a delivery ticket or sales invoice as proof of purchase, pay by check, and jot down the license number of the delivery vehicle in case of a dispute.