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 local fire department officials, that last presumption can be a fatal one -- particularly in winter.

"People are very apathetic," said Howard County Deputy Fire Chief Edgar Shilling, head of his 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 increase dramatically during winter, largely because of home heaters. 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.

In Montgomery County, there were 673 fires from January through March of this year, compared with 602 from June through August. Prince George's County had 897 fires in the first quarter of 1990, compared with 760 during the summer.

Fire prevention officials said their advice can be whittled down to three words: Use common sense. Take, for example, fires in the kitchen. Twenty eight percent of Howard County's blazes occurred in kitchens 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 Howard County's fires last year. Those 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. Such 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 unaware of another potential fire hazard in their homes -- the Christmas tree.

Dennis Beard, public education specialist in the Howard 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 cleaned and tested regularly.

Many of those without smoke detectors in their homes 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 Howard 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."