Call it the "It Won't Happen to Me" syndrome. It's what makes people believe they'll never be mugged. It's what makes them think their houses will never be burglarized. And it's what lulls them into feeling that their houses are immune to fire.

According to Howard County Fire Department officials, that last presumption can be a fatal one -- particularly with winter approaching.

"People are very apathetic," said Deputy Chief Edgar Shilling, head of the department's Bureau of Fire Prevention. "They think fires will happen to their neighbors, but not to them. You sometimes wonder where people are coming from."

Traditionally, house fires nationwide rise dramatically during the winter, largely because of home heaters. Howard County is no exception. During the first three months of 1989, for example, there were 144 fires in Howard County, compared with 112 from June through August of that year.

With winter around the corner, the fire department once again is gearing up for an onslaught of blazes caused by careless or ignorant use of fireplaces, furnaces, wood-burning stoves and space heaters.

And once again, the department's fire prevention unit is prepared to try to alert an often indifferent public to the dangers of ignoring fire safety.

Firefighters and other members of the unit are scheduled to give speeches, hand out leaflets and teach fire safety techniques as they descend on shopping centers, schools and businesses. Fire prevention officials said their advice can be whittled down to three words: Use common sense. Take, for example, fires in the kitchen, where 28 percent of the county's blazes occurred last year. Fire officials said many of those fires were caused by people turning on their stoves for warmth and forgetting to turn them off before going to bed.

Or take chimney blazes, which accounted for 15 percent of the county's fires last year. These fires frequently result from residents failing to get their fireplaces and chimneys cleaned and inspected annually, Shilling said.

Another prominent source of winter fires is wood-burning devices. These fires often ignite because users don't realize that the devices quickly can become as hot as 900 degrees, Shilling said.

"When a book says don't burn it hot," Shilling said of wood-burning devices, "the question a lot of people ask is, 'What's hot?' "

Many residents also are ignorant of another potential fire hazard in their homes -- the Christmas tree.

Dennis Beard, public education specialist in the fire prevention unit, said most Christmas tree fires result from dried-out evergreens. "You have to keep them freshly watered, which means watering them daily," he said. "That's the bottom line."

Beard suggests that lighted Christmas trees not be left unattended. "When you leave home, turn it off," he said.

Beard notes a host of other potential firetraps related to the Christmas season, including frayed electrical cords and discarded wrapping paper. Because such paper burns quickly, it can start a flash fire or a chimney fire if tossed into a fireplace or wood-burning stove, Beard said. "Don't throw wrapping paper in the fireplace," he said. "Throw it in the garbage."

Above all, Beard and Shilling stress the use of smoke detectors. The officials estimate that 80 percent of Howard County homes are equipped with detectors, but that only 50 percent of the devices are regularly cleaned and tested.

Many of those without smoke detectors are older and low-income residents. To address that problem, the fire department provides free smoke detectors for the elderly and for residents who can't afford to buy them. The department will install the alarms for the elderly.

Shilling says widespread use of smoke detectors in the county is the main reason the area has had only one fire-related death in the last three years.

"I really feel the way to keep deaths down is adequate smoke detection," he said. "We have to push that year after year after year."