ELLICOTT CITY -- Down on Main Street, talk has turned once again to the subject of fire. It's a particularly emotional subject around here because three years ago a fire consumed six historic row houses and displaced a number of residents and businesses.

Now merchants and residents have new fears. Since the end of July there have been nine fires on Main Street, setting merchants and residents on edge wondering where the next blaze is going to erupt. At least one resident isn't going to wait to find out.

Elena Conaway runs The Crystal Underground, a jewelry shop, and until this week lived within walking distance of her shop. But two of the fires, which officials determined were arson, were set on her back porch and six fires have nearly consumed a neighboring house in the 8400 block of Main Street. Conaway decided it wasn't worth the risk, so she and her family are packing up and moving from their rented house to nearby Marriottsville.

"Everyone's really uptight," said Conaway, who lived on Main Street for four years. "At first they were small, but {the Oct. 2 fire in the house} was pretty scary, flames were shooting out of the windows. We like living in Ellicott City, but right now we're afraid of being burned alive."

With the majority of the fires breaking out in the one vacant building, firefighters haven't had to handle any injuries. Still, fires in old row houses can be deadly because they spread fast, said Cmdr. Raymond French of the District 2 station. "Many of the old buildings don't have fire walls, so a fire can start at one end and go all the way to the other."

While the building is within sight of the District 2 firehouse, French and his staff are getting tired of putting out the same fire every week at all hours of the night. "I have three crews," he said. "They have all practiced on that house."

The building is owned by First American Management, a local realty firm. A First American employe, who asked that she not be identified, said that the company had "no plans" for the building. "We want to wait until they catch whoever's doing it," she said.

A neighborhood man has been charged in connection with three of the fires, said Deputy State Fire Marshall John Earp. He is not a suspect in the any of the other fires, however, and Earp declined to give any details about other suspects. "We are looking at several people," he said.

Although the number of fires on Main Street is already more than the seven reported for the entire district last year, fire officials warned against overreaction by residents. Howard County Fire Department spokesman Cmdr. Don Howell said that since the large number is attributed to two arsonists, fire officials do not believe it is a widespread problem.

"It's an unfortunate sequence that's been repeated numerous times," said Howell, who is confident that an apprehension will be made, but admits that arson is a hard crime to prove. "A person can set it up so that the fire doesn't occur until hours later and often all the evidence is destroyed."

While the fires have caused a relatively small amount of damage -- about $20,000, said Howell -- merchants here are unnerved nonetheless. They remember all too well the devastating fire of three years ago.

The 1984 fire hit John Fisher hard. He had owned Leidigs Bakery, an institution that served generations of residents, for just two years when the building that housed it and an adjacent one were destroyed. The fire began when a faulty air-conditioning unit in the bakery ignited.

The fire caused more than $600,000 worth of property damage and it took him 11 months to reopen.

Fisher's going to make sure it doesn't happen again. In the new building, Fisher said, he installed burglar and fire alarms. "They will have to break into the building to set it on fire," he said.

A few merchants are less concerned. Melissa Fulton's opened her shop, Celebrate Maryland, in one of the buildings that replaced those destroyed in the 1984 fire and she thinks the rash of fires is "an isolated thing."

"If it was happening all over town I'd be alarmed. I don't know, maybe I should be," she said.

Until the arsonist is caught, some merchants say all they can do is wait. And hope. Said Fisher, "It goes beyond the physical damage. What my wife and I went through, we don't want to go through it again. It destroyed everything we worked so hard to get and we had to start from scratch again."