A fire ripped through Ellicott City's historic Main Street yesterday afternoon, destroying a row of 19th-century buildings and charring the core of the quaint tourist district on the eve of the holiday season.

The six-alarm fire, which sent plumes of flame-flecked smoke soaring into the air, came 15 years after a similar fire devastated the shopping district in the Howard County seat. Yesterday's fire destroyed a popular bar and several apartments and severely damaged a used-book store, a home-furnishings shop, an art and floral gallery and a knickknack store that held the area's largest Beanie Baby collection. No one was injured, but two blocks were evacuated in the heart of the mile-long district as more than 100 firefighters battled the blaze.

The fire was under control but still burning late Tuesday evening, and its cause was unknown. None of the burned businesses had smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinkler systems, according to Howard County Fire and Rescue spokesman Chris Shimer. Because they were built before modern fire codes, the structures are only subject to rules regarding the number of people allowed and exits required, he said.

Several hundred people lined the streets to watch the spectacle as the massive burst of light brown smoke obscured the dusk. Thick yellow hoses were strewed all along the narrow, hilly street.

"With the Christmas season just around the corner, this is not going to be good for business," said Sue Graham, an employee at Caplan's Furniture, which was separated from the fire by just one wall. "But I'm sure people will rally around Main Street."

According to fire officials, the fire started just after 3 p.m. in a back room of the Main Street Blues Cafe, a popular hangout for live music, drinks and food that was empty except for the cook and the bartender. Soon after the bartender smelled smoke and called 911, flames burst through the windows and fireballs shot out the roof of the three-story brownstone, the interior of which included much heavy timber.

The six-alarm fire, a rarity in Howard County, drew more than 100 firefighters, including some from neighboring Baltimore County. Since it was so severe, officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also responded.

Because all the buildings but the brownstone were made of wood, the fire was particularly hard to fight. At its peak, the flames were so intense that firefighters took turns dousing it five minutes at a time from three ladders above the roof and from hoses pointed through the front windows. But they couldn't get to the back of the cafe building--the apparent source of the fire--because a stream runs right behind.

Merchants are worried about what the fire will do to their holidays.

"Profits from the Christmas seasons get us through the rest of the year. We depend on it," said Sally Fox, who owns an arts and crafts shop two doors down from Main Street Blues. "This couldn't have happened at a worse time."

But so far, the mill town's holiday plans--with the theme "Magic on Main Street"--are still intact. Officials said last night that there still will be late-night shopping, elves and toymakers, and a huge tree with a candlelighting ceremony the day after Thanksgiving.

Still, many of the people present last night felt a sad sense of deja vu. The 1984 fire, started by a bakery's faulty air-conditioning unit, destroyed six connected buildings, including a restaurant, a wine store, a gift shop, an art gallery, an antique clock store and seven apartments--many of which had already been rebuilt after Hurricane Agnes hit 12 years earlier.

And for some, tragedy struck twice. Carole and Bill Sachs, acquaintances said, lost a store in the first fire. This time, they were tending shop at their floral and art gallery, Spring House Designs, when a police officer came in to evacuate the shop. They ran across the street, turned around and saw the flames leaping out of the bar and, two doors down, an explosion on the roof of their store.

"This does not bode well," Carole Sachs said, crying and hugging friends as her shop gushed with black smoke. "I'm not sure what we're going to do."

Some of the burned buildings have already been carefully restored--steel roofs laid like the originals, fire-retardant walls added--and one of the three wood-framed houses recently won a historic restoration award.

But fire officials said that neither sprinklers nor fire detectors went off at the bar. Doris Thompson, head of the county's Historic District Commission, said that as far as she knew, the historic buildings on Main Street weren't necessarily equipped with sprinklers. "When those buildings were built, there weren't such things," she said.

Despite the tears yesterday, a spirit of determination seemed to pervade Main Street, a neighborhood famed for not only its antiques and charm but also its ability to spring back from disaster.

Preston Pairo Jr. is an Ellicott City lawyer who owns properties across the street from the fire. "I've been through two floods, and this is the second fire," he said. "Like the phoenix that rises from the ashes, it always comes back."

"I had a flashback at three o'clock when I saw the smoke and fire. It was like 1984 all over again," said Fernand Tersiguel, who lost a cafe to that fire and built a new restaurant up the hill. "We'll survive and we're going to come back. We've done it before."

Soon after yesterday's fire broke out, Tersiguel talked to the owner of the Main Street Blues Cafe, who told him he was sleeping in his apartment above the restaurant when he heard an explosion and smelled smoke. "Call your lawyer," Tersiguel told him first.

Then, "Stay strong."

Tersiguel said the owner vowed that one day he would be back in business, in the same spot.

Staff writer Angela Paik and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Firefighters work to knock down the blaze that damaged much of Main Street in Ellicott City's historic downtown. No one was reported injured.