Homeowners who love their fireplaces are in good company.

But before they light that first fire of the season, Larry Siegel, the Des Moines-based owner of Chim-Cheree Chimney Sweep Service and a 10-year veteran of sooty stacks, has some advice.Siegel advises in Midwest Living magazine that fireplace owners first have their system thoroughly inspected. A professional chimney sweep or house inspector can uncover potential house-fire hazards. Bird nests between the metal lining and wooden frame of factory-built fireplace systems are common culprits, Siegel says, as are less-visible cracked or broken linings in masonry fireplaces.

Many chimneys, especially those made before the 1930s, need relining. (Some 19th-century homes may have no lining at all.) The job costs about $2,000. Have an inspector or chimney sweep check to see that a brick barrier (called a wythe) separates the flues when two fireplaces or a furnace and a fireplace share a common chimney. This barrier acts as a firewall and will help to contain a serious chimney fire.

Also, install a chimney rain cap. It keeps out varmints, as well as rainwater. That's important because water mixed with acidic fire residues can destroy the mortar used in fireplace brickwork.

Poke around the firebox (where the burning takes place), too. During the 1950s, steel-lined masonry fireboxes were particularly popular in the Midwest. Today, many are wearing out.

Here are some other tips:

- If the fireplace doesn't seem to "draw," it probably isn't getting enough outside air, or the chimney isn't positioned to get a crosswind at the top of the flue. To remedy the problem, open a window somewhere in the room before starting the fire.

- When smoke "backs up" when starting a fire, the flue probably isn't properly warmed up, allowing cold chimney air to rush down into the fireplace. So, 10 to 15 minutes before lighting a fire, open the damper to let in more air.

- Midwesterners burn mostly oak, hickory, locust and elm. That's good, Siegel says. Those woods leave behind limited amounts of sticky, flammable creosote. Don't burn soft, sappy woods such as cottonwood, pine or apple.