Roger Marino and the rest of the Main Street merchants in this small, historic enclave have now seen fire and rain. But it is the fire, they said, the dancing, destructive scatter of flames that consumed six buildings Wednesday night including three owned by Marino, they have come to fear most.

"I've been through the flood of '72 and the rush of water that sounds in your mind -- that was frightening. But this, this was worse," said Marino, an art gallery owner who has spent two days assessing what can best be described as a preservationist's nightmare.

"Everything the flame licked was gone. The thing that kept running through my mind, as we were fighting the smoke, seeing the blazes, trying to get things out, was: 'This can't be total. Oh, this just can't be total.' "

The blaze reduced six two-story row houses in the heart of the 19th-century shopping district to a smoldering rubble of red bricks, twisted metal and shards of glass. What remained today were dozens of questions about how the fire started and just as many promises from community businessmen to restore the devastated area.

Officials from the State Fire Marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began what will be a weeklong examination of the street that once housed a bakery, restaurant, wine store, art gallery, gift shop, antique clock shop and seven apartments.

Samples of the building where witnesses first saw flames, Leidig's Bakery, will be tested on the scene and then taken to a laboratory in Rockville for more intense chemical tests. Video tapes of the fire photographed by local television news stations will also be used to assess the path of the blaze, officials said.

"It's almost like a puzzle," said Andy Vita, supervisor of the federal assistance team, which is routinely asked to help determine the origin of fires that total more than $1 million in damage. "We are going to have to peel things off in layers to see what is there."

It may be weeks before the rubble is removed. And owners of the destroyed buildings, which had to be refurbished in 1972 after a flood caused by tropical storm Agnes drenched the town, said it may be as long as two years before new structures can be completed in the official historic district.

According to laws that govern national historic sites, any plans to build in the district must be approved by the local Historic District Commission. That Howard County board will work with the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, a private nonprofit preservation group formed after the 1972 disaster, to review those plans. The historic commission is scheduled to meet Dec. 6, county staff said.

The two-week wait won't be time wasted by the businessmen who remembered well how they once had to scramble for survival. Yesterday, as fire officials were just beginning to comb through rubble, neighboring businesses began offering room in their stores for the displaced.

"I've come from big cities like Washington and Baltimore," said Marvin Sachs, owner of Taylor's Furniture Store, who offered desks to three of the six businesses. "I know what it's like. But here, it's wonderful. Everybody helps everybody."

"We're not only business associates here. We're cherished friends," said Enalee E. Bounds, owner of Ellicott's Country Store and president of Historic Ellicott City Inc., a nonprofit group that raises money for community preservation projects.

"It's hard to explain, but we're very close. And tragedies like this always brings you closer."