A man was killed last night in a raging blaze at one of the Washington area's largest retirement communities, Montgomery County fire officials said.

The fire at the 9,000-resident Leisure World complex in the Aspen Hill area broke out about 7 p.m. and raced along the roofs of three adjacent low-rise buildings, causing substantial damage, officials said. Each building contains four units, residents said.

The victim was found after a search of a heavily damaged portion of the first floor of the building where the fire apparently broke out, Montgomery Fire Chief Thomas W. Carr Jr. said. Fire officials were withholding the man's name until relatives could be notified.

Authorities said 17 people, both residents and visitors, were evacuated from the two-story buildings in the 3200 block of South Leisure World Boulevard. Some, they said, had been leaning out of windows when rescuers arrived, and about a half-dozen were carried down ladders.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known. County Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Pete Piringer said it might have begun in a first-floor kitchen.

From there, he said, it apparently spread to the roof and to the two adjacent roofs. It took about 90 minutes to bring the fire under control, Piringer said.

"Every time they would get the fire seemingly down, it would rekindle," said Leisure World resident Annie Collins, 80.

Authorities said the need to focus on rescues slowed efforts to fight the fire. At one point, Carr said, a firefighter became trapped inside a building, triggering an emergency distress call.

He was rescued and taken to Washington Hospital Center for treatment of burns and released last night. About 150 firefighters responded to the fire, Piringer said.

The huge Leisure World development with its landmark globe is on the east side of Georgia Avenue, about five miles north of the Capital Beltway. It includes garden-style units and high-rise buildings.

The cold and steady wind kept many residents from watching the rescue effort too long.

They saw firefighters smash their way through the white-framed windows to get inside the red-roofed, light-brown brick buildings.

"At the peak of it, we could see flames shooting two stories above" the roofs, Leisure World resident Jerome Masse said.

Interviewed by telephone an hour after the fire was reported, he said, "I can still see flames licking off the top. . . . It's a horrendous candle."

The smoke became difficult to withstand, he said.

"It was so thick, I could not see across the street," Masse said. "My eyes have been watering. I had to come back in."

The smoke turned white, witnesses said, suggesting that the fire had been suppressed, but then it turned pink again with the glow of flames.

Authorities said some displaced residents were being sheltered at a clubhouse and others in units at the development. Piringer said fire officials worked with the American Red Cross to make sure everyone was accommodated.

He said late last night that officials believed all residents had been accounted for but that firefighters were still checking the damaged structures.

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

The fire at Leisure World in Montgomery broke out about 7 p.m. and spread along the roofs of three buildings. Authorities did not immediately know the cause but believe the fire might have begun in a first-floor kitchen.