Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist has ordered an investigation of allegations that the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department mishandled a Wheaton apartment fire that caused $500,000 in damage and left 22 families homeless last month.

Gilchrist sought the inquiry after a staff review found such possible errors as failure to apply water promptly and "to coordinate command and tactics" and the incorrect placement of fire equipment around the blaze at the Georgian Woods Apartments.

Complaints by firefighters of possible negligence and mismanagement of the Jan. 29 blaze were passed on to the county's chief administrative officer, Robert Wilson, by fire services director Warren Isman, who was at the scene of the fire.

"If true, these possible errors become more significant considering that there was no apparent alarm delay, the first-due company arrived on the scene three minutes after dispatch and apparently the fire was internally confined in the originating apartment at the time of arrival," Wilson told Gilchrist.

The blaze started in the basement of a four-story building and spread to two other buildings, damaging 25 units. Investigators said it started from careless use of a candle.

Wilson also said a plan describing the layout of buildings and location of utility cut-offs was not used in suppressing the fire and that firefighters were not given specific enough assignments.

Kensington Fire Chief Fred Bagley has denied any negligence by the firefighters and has attributed the severity of the blaze partially to high winds and interior structural problems that hampered efficient use of the equipment.