There has been an alarming increase in the number of fires and casualties involving wood-burning stoves and free-standing fireplaces, building inspectors nationwide report.

At a meeting of the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) organization in Norfolk, Va., this summer, faulty workmanship and poor design were cited as reasons for fires in the increasing popular stoves and fireplaces.

But inspectors also pointed to improper and hazardous installation and careless use by homeowners.

BOCA is an organization that works with fire and safety groups, builders, manufacturers and architects to shape housing codes.

Homeowners thinking about buying wood stoves or fireplaces should check carefully for approval of the specific equipment. It should be labeled by a recognized testing lab such as Underwriters Laboratory (U.L.), with specific installation procedures provided. The maintenance manuel should be read carefully and all instructions should be followed.

If in doubt, you can further check with your local building inspectors or fire marshall to see if they approve of the brand of the stove or fireplace. Your local building code may also have requirements as to minimum clearances and fire and heat shielding.

When you install the stove:

Place it so you don't block exits.

Make sure smoke or ionization detectors are properly placed within the house.

Expect cresote build-up in the chimney and inspect it often.

Wire any electrical controls on the stove according to national electric codes.

Allow proper distance from draperies and fabrics. If the stove is attached to an existing chimney, the sizes of the smoke pipes and flues must be compatible. An inspection access must be provided. Proper upward slope of the smoke pipe - with good fittings and approved materials - is necessary. The chimney should extend above the roof with enough clearance and height to meet code requirements - and you should have a building permit.

Take into consideration whether the stove is to be for occasional use or as a primary source of heat. This will determine the size and design desired. Radiant stoves are fine for one room. Circulating stoves are needed forculating stoves" are needed for more than one room.

Select the wood, not just by the quantity and price, but by species of wood. For instance, hickory, oak and maple will produce twice the heat of cedar or pine.

The development of nearly air-tight fire chambers, automatic draft and heat regulators and design to recapture exhaust heat, has increased the efficiency of wood stoves. These new designs are not cheap and are a far cry from the old pot-bellied traditionals of Americana. Stoves are now capable of producing a BTU output competitive with fuel oil. The current new oil prices agreed to by OPEC make this even more so.

Claxton Walker heads a home inspection service.