There are plenty of ways to tell that the market for firewood has taken off here. Wood-burning stoves are selling out in stores, the price of split wood has jumped past $200 a cord and would-be woodsmen are filling up classes on lumberjack skills.

But perhaps the best way to see what's happening is to watch Maxine work.

Maxine is the nickname that logger Tom Chrisenton has given to the refrigerator-size, chain saw-swinging mechanical chopper that he uses to fell trees on his property here in southern New Hampshire.

With the frightening grace of a "Terminator" robot, Maxine needs less than a minute to make a living spruce tree into logs, limbs and sawdust. She does the job about 20 times faster than a lumberjack with a chain saw.

But even with Maxine, Chrisenton said he can barely stay ahead of the demand now -- as New Englanders stunned by the high price of oil flock back to a fuel source as old as the Colonial forests.

"The stuff I'm cutting today will either be delivered this afternoon or tomorrow," Chrisenton said. "We can't keep up with it."

Experts on this small corner of the U.S. energy market say New England has always had a thing for burning wood. People here hung on to old iron stoves, which radiate heat, as the rest of the country came to see firewood only as a kind of flaming living room accent.

Federal government statistics show that, in 2001, nearly 10 percent of New England households got some of their heat from a wood stove -- more than three times the national average of 2.8 percent.

The reason could have something to do with the self-reliant character of this region: People like being able to look out the kitchen window and see the winter's fuel stacked up. Or it could be a simple nexus of people, frosty weather and wood.

"You go down to the Southwest, it's solar" power, said Jasen A. Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association. "Here, you know, we got trees."

In modern times, the last heyday of the New England firewood market was in the late 1970s, when oil shortages drove up the price of oil for home furnaces. Wood stoves and split logs sold like crazy.

This year, as the region enters the traditional late-summer season when winter wood is laid up, the boom times are back. "It's becoming very much like 1979 again," said Richard Wright, a New Hampshire editor of a trade magazine for the business called Hearth & Home.

The economic chain reaction began with events far away. An industrializing China increased the demand for oil and Hurricane Katrina ravaged the oil-producing Gulf Coast region.

As a result, oil prices have gone up sharply. In New Hampshire, for instance, state figures show that a gallon of heating oil has jumped from $1.28 in late 2003 to about $2.67 today.

Those prices make people such as Nancy McNitt, who has a nearly 200-year-old house in the Boston suburb of Wayland, Mass., more likely to ignore the downsides of burning wood -- such as the lingering chill a stove leaves around the baseboards and the long hours required to split logs.

"I'm probably going to rely more on the wood" this year than in previous winters, McNitt said.

Other New Englanders have been moved to buy new stoves, even though they aren't likely to recoup the price of a $2,000 model in one winter. Many store owners say their customers have expressed long-term worries, believing that heating oil may stay expensive.

"All of them say the same thing, 'Oil is too high,' " said Wil Labbe, whose County Stove Shop in the far northern town of Caribou, Maine, has roughly tripled its stove sales of last year. "They don't trust the oil."

The demand has meant big changes for the region's staid firewood industry, whose small-time operators customarily let their wood dry for months before depositing it on customers' lawns in late summer.

Suddenly, nobody has time to wait.

Chrisenton, Maxine's owner, started cutting trees a month earlier than usual this season, and still couldn't keep up. Instead of three or four orders a week, he was getting 12 a day.

"It's never been like that," said Ginny Chrisenton, his wife. For the first time in years, the couple stopped advertising their firewood in the state's larger newspapers, she said. "Now, it's just the local paper, because it's just too many calls."

Peter Lammert, an official with the Maine Forest Service, serves as a kind of unofficial Dow Jones for firewood, tracking the price per "cord" -- a stack four feet by four feet by eight feet. He said that, in the span of a year, the price of good-quality dried wood has gone up from $190 a cord to $205 and beyond, and even "green" wood, which is freshly cut and hard to burn, has jumped by $30 to $170 or more.

That's good news for loggers, and is causing a lot more interest in the introductory classes offered by the New Hampshire timberland association.

But the area's firefighters see a downside: They believe that an increase in wood burning will lead inevitably to an increase in people setting their homes on fire.

Novice stove users burn wood too long and too slowly, and allow a caustic tar of smoke residue to congeal in their chimneys. Then, a burning ember floats up, and the result is a 2,600-degree chimney fire that sounds like a freight train and looks like the inside of a volcano.

In the heyday of the wood-burning 1970s, Lammert said, his department in Thomaston, Maine, population 2,900 at the time, responded to 27 such fires in one winter. When the boom died down, that number became one or two a year. This year, he and other officials believe, the fires will start soon after the first frost.

"People are going to do funny things not to pay that money" for oil, said Raymond Parent, the fire chief in Sanford, Maine.

New Hampshire loggers Tom and Ginny Chrisenton pose with Maxine, a mechanical chopper that fells trees in seconds, as they try to meet a surging demand for firewood. "I'm probably going to rely more on the wood" this winter as oil costs rise, says Nancy McNitt, who uses a wood-burning stove to help heat her home in Wayland, Mass.