State legislators, working with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), floated a proposal yesterday to offer historic-building owners loans to pay for safety additions that could help prevent the kind of blaze that ravaged Ellicott City's historic district Tuesday.

"Clearly, there's some sort of state responsibility here," said state Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R), whose district includes Ellicott City. "We'll have to do a lot of work, a lot of head-knocking, to see if we can put something together."

Flanagan and others suggested that the loans could easily be repaid after the owners' fire insurance premiums were lowered as a result of added safety measures.

The six-alarm fire, which began just after 3 p.m. Tuesday and burned until almost 1 p.m. yesterday, gutted four businesses and numerous apartments, leaving 10 Main Street families homeless. Two more businesses suffered serious smoke and water damage but remained largely intact.

The buildings contained a hodgepodge of fire safety measures, with all but one lacking a sprinkler system, according to Howard County Fire and Rescue Department officials. Because they were built well before the state's modern fire code was enacted in the early 1980s, all of the buildings on Main Street--save those rebuilt after the street's last major fire in 1984--are not required to have sprinklers or other preventive measures.

Fire officials were unable to make a damage estimate yesterday, and the cause of the fire likely will not be known until next week, said Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Robert Thomas, who heads the investigation. Fire officials announced yesterday that the fire started in the outdoor trash area behind the Main Street Blues Cafe.

Main Street yesterday was a jumble of debris and glass, with almost-stifling smoke still hanging in the air, but the tight-knit core of merchants that make up the quaint, artsy downtown promised that they would recover in time for the make-or-break Christmas shopping season.

"Ellicott City is alive and well," Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D) declared after a closed-door meeting with about two dozen of the merchants.

He said the district could be open to shoppers as early as this evening. The owners of most of the damaged buildings pledged yesterday that they will rebuild as soon as possible--with construction possibly starting today.

Matthew Riesner, 17, the cook at Main Street Blues who first discovered the fire, recalls the trash had been piling up in back of the club Tuesday; it was due to be collected that night. He also said that the club's grills were on but that nothing was cooking, as there were no customers. Riesner managed to evacuate two people in apartments above the club before escaping to safety. He was disappointed in the club's lack of sprinklers or a fire wall.

"With all the money that goes into the town, you'd expect them to have fire walls," he said.

During the height of the drought this summer, a pile of cardboard boxes stored in the same back area caught fire, but the blaze was quickly extinguished, Riesner said.

Fire officials and merchants expressed doubt that sprinklers would have done much good, given that the fire started outside. But Robert Solomon, an engineer with the National Fire Protection Association, said that his organization recommends sprinklers for nearly all historic buildings and that they help put the fire out no matter where it starts.

"We've just had phenomenal performance from these systems," he said. Fatalities are far rarer, and property damage costs 20 percent to 30 percent less with sprinklers, he said.

Many preservationists have come to terms with the indelicacy of punching holes in precious buildings to install sprinklers, Solomon said. But cost--as much as $4 a square foot--remains a big barrier.

The people of Ellicott City need only look to Annapolis to see that.

When an electrical fire demolished a century-old building in the middle of Annapolis's tourist district in 1997, the mayor appointed a task force to make recommendations on fire safety, particularly in historic buildings. The committee suggested providing businesses with low-interest, long-term loans to retrofit their buildings, and Mayor Dean L. Johnson is drafting legislation and searching for funding sources to do so.

But two years after the fire, only about 30 businesses in old Annapolis have voluntarily added sprinklers.

"Common sense says you ought to be sprinklered, all else being equal," said Thomas Roskelly, spokesman for the city. "But all else isn't equal. Retrofitting is a very expensive business. . . . Frankly, Ellicott City might add some impetus to that kind of effort."

Yesterday, Robey began his attempt to goad Main Street merchants into action, telling them, "Let's be honest. There will surely be another fire."

Ronald Spahn, attorney for Historic Ellicott Properties Inc., which owns the stucco building that housed the severely damaged Rugs to Riches antique store, said its owners are committed to rebuilding. He said the building contained sprinklers, though fire officials disputed this and said no sprinkler went off there during the fire.

Charles Wehland, an Ellicott City lawyer who co-owns the two buildings that received minor damage, conceded that he had failed to install sprinklers. However, he maintained that the buildings' special fire-resistant walls and underground wiring spared them greater damage. As for rebuilding, he said: "We will rebuild. The only question is when."

CAPTION: Lisa Thompson hugs her father, Bill Sachs, as family members see the damage at their Ellicott City gallery. The fire gutted four businesses.

CAPTION: Walter Johnson, left, and Charles Wehland inspect their building, which was damaged when a fire ripped through Ellicott City's Main Street on Tuesday.