A fire that prompted the evacuation of nearly 100 residents and caused $500,000 damage to a Wheaton apartment complex early yesterday was caused by "the careless use of a candle," according to Montgomery County fire officials

Officials said the four-alarm fire at the Georgian Woods Apartments that sent five firefighters to a local hospital with minor injuries was triggered when a candle flame ignited curtains in a second-floor apartment.

The moderate-income apartment complex is located on Shorefield Road near Wheaton Regional Park.

Fire Heavily damaged two attached four-story buildings at 12106 and 12108 Shorefield Rd. Two other attached buildings suffered water and smoke damage.

All 44 familes who occupied the four buildings were evacuated and either spent the night with friends and relatives, or at a temporary Red Cross shelter set up in a local hotel.

County fire and Red Cross officials said yesterday that "within days" 22 families would be allowed to reoccupy the two buildings that suffered water and smoke damage. "They'll be able to come back once the utilities get turned back on," said William Fenton, a Red Cross official,

Meanwhile about a dozen residents returned yesterday to the scene of the fire and milled about behind a fire barricade while firefighters hammered plywood across the windows and doors of the most severely damaged apartments.

"I guess you could say we were lucky that everybody got out safely, if you want to look at it philosophically," said Ryan Ricci, who escaped the blaze with his wife and two children after they were awakened by the shouts of firefighters.

Ricco said most of the contents of his apartment were destroyed. He said he and his family spent the night at another apartment in the sprawling complex.

"I'm mainly interested in seeing if I can get back some stuff that wasn't lost," he said, looking at the badly gutted buildings, where icicles formed in blackened doorways and windows.

One of Ricci's neighbors walked over than and said, "It's awful, isn't it? We'll probably never see each other again."

"We'll stay in touch," Ricci answered, "we aren't dead."