A U.S. Court of Appeals panel said yesterday that the D.C. Fire Department's affirmative action hiring plan is unlawful, rejecting the city's claim that a landmark Supreme Court ruling on hiring should apply to the case.

The appeals panel reaffirmed its February ruling in the case, finding that the plan to hire more blacks was reverse discrimination against white applicants. The plan had been upheld two years ago by a U.S. District Court judge.

Judge Kenneth Starr, writing the majority opinion, said, "We do not . . . condemn the District's overall aim of avoiding discrimination against minorities. To the contrary, we only find impermissible the means -- a rigid quota based strictly on race . . . . "

The plan proposed that at least 60 percent of each entering class of firefighter trainees be black.

The ruling was a victory for the Reagan administration, which has opposed the District's efforts to comply with a 1984 consent decree between the D.C. government and firefighters to develop a plan to hire more blacks.

"Certainly we are disappointed with the results," said Beverly Burke, a spokeswoman for the D.C. corporation counsel, who added that the city's lawyers are reviewing options. It was unclear last night whether the city would appeal the ruling. A request for an en banc hearing on the case by the full appeals court has not been acted on.

"I've never seen such a complete misreading of the law or misreading of the facts," said Richard Seymour, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. Seymour said he was confident the full court would render a more favorable ruling, but said yesterday's decision could be seen as "a temporary Justice Department victory."

In March, the Supreme Court, ruling in a California reverse discrimination case, found that the 1964 Civil Rights Act gives employers wide discretion to take race and gender into consideration when determining who to hire. That decision was hailed by civil rights and feminist groups as a major victory, and District officials hoped it would provide a basis for a reversal in its case.

The Supreme Court decision came shortly after an appeals court panel here concurred with a District court ruling that rejected the city's plan. The city asked the appeals court to rehear the case in view of the Supreme Court ruling.

However, the appeals court, in refusing to rehear the case yesterday, found that the higher court ruling was narrow and did not apply to the D.C. hiring plan.

Starr was joined in the majority by Judge Laurence Silberman.

In the dissenting opinion, Judge Abner Mikva wrote that the hiring plan is "designed to rectify past patterns of discrimination . . . . It goes but a small way toward remedying the underrepresentation of minorities in the District's uniformed fire force . . . . "

The case stemmed from a controversy beginning in 1980 over the hiring and promotion of blacks. After black firefighters filed a suit in federal court in 1984, the District agreed in a consent decree to devise an affirmative action hiring plan.

The resulting plan was attacked by white firefigthers and the U.S. Justice Department as unfair to whites but was accepted by U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey.

A revised hiring and promotion plan is pending before Richey and is scheduled for a hearing next month. In the meantime, a hiring freeze is in force at the fire department.