SANTA BARBARA — More than 100 expensive homes were destroyed here and at least 37 people were injured as a swarm of fast-moving fires, at least three deliberately set, exploded across tinder-dry Southern California on Wednesday.
Flames fed by prolonged drought conditions and record-high temperatures hit communities from here to Orange County to San Diego, destroying at least 139 homes, forcing evacuation of hundreds of residents, leaving several firefighters injured and closing two major freeways.
In Orange County, a fire apparently started by a transient in the hills of Carbon Canyon near Brea raced across the county line and destroyed at least six homes in San Bernardino County. By late Wednesday night, the blaze had blackened more than 3,500 acres in the two counties.
Several hundred residents of the San Bernardino County community of Chino Hills were forced into emergency shelters. Some homes were briefly threatened in Orange County, prompting some Brea residents to voluntarily pack their belongings and flee. But no homes in Orange County were destroyed, officials said.
Brea police arrested Peter Diaz Reyes, a 29-year-old transient, on suspicion of felony arson shortly after the fire was started about 11 a.m. near Carbon Canyon Regional Park. (Story, Page 26)
In other areas of the Southland, fires brought the realization of residents' worst nightmares:
An arson fire raced through the affluent Glendale hills, destroying 18 homes, damaging 16 others and causing $25 million in damage before it was contained at 8 p.m., officials said.
And late Wednesday, a controlled burn by the U.S. Forest Service erupted into an inferno in the Cleveland National Forest of Riverside County, destroying 15 homes in the Temescal Canyon area near Corona. The blaze also forced closure of Interstate 15 in El Cerrito, said California Division of Forestry spokeswoman Jeaneen Gardner.
Record-shattering triple-digit temperatures combined with the fourth year of drought conditions set the stage for Wednesday's infernos.
The mercury soared to 106 degrees in Fullerton and 104 in Anaheim and San Juan Capistrano. Temperatures hit 109 at Los Angeles' Civic Center Wednesday, shattering a record for the second straight day. The 112 degrees recorded Tuesday was the hottest day on record in the city's history.
The Santa Barbara fire was started by an arsonist near California 154 and Painted Cave Road in the Park Highlands area, northeast of the city.
Authorities in Santa Barbara County said the blaze roared down a canyon in the Santa Ynez Mountains on gusting, erratic "Sundowner" winds Wednesday evening and could wind up consuming as many as 300 homes.
Flames quickly jumped tree-lined streets, skipped from roof to wood shake roof and swept down a canyon in the San Marcos Pass area to Cathedral Oaks Road, fire officials said.
County Fire Capt. Charlie Johnson said more than 100 structures, ranging from fancy Hope Ranch estates to simple apartments, had been destroyed as flames raced over more than 3,000 acres.
Area hospitals reported at least 37 people had been treated for smoke inhalation, chest pain and foreign objects in the eyes.
An incendiary device was found in the mountains where the fire began, and Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies detained a suspect shortly after 6 p.m., said Deputy Tim Gracey. He declined to release any other details.
A second fire merged with the canyon blaze, forcing evacuation of inmates at the Santa Barbara County Honor Farm, jumping U.S. 101 and forcing closure of the highway between Santa Barbara and Buellton.
Inmates at the Santa Barbara County Jail were evacuated to a nearby high school for several hours until the danger passed.
Sheriff's deputies and National Guardsmen began evacuating residents in the fire area shortly after 7 p.m., but many people had left the area earlier without stopping to gather any possessions.
"This thing is the worst I've seen in 25 years," Johnson said.
Janet Unterseher, 69, who was evacuated from the Rancho Santa Barbara trailer park, said:
"You could hear the explosion of the eucalyptus trees. The sky was a bloody red."
Dr. George Scott ran around his house with a fire extinguisher, spraying the underbrush as fire consumed his back yard. He put his three dogs into his ancient Chrysler Imperial, but said he would not leave.
"I've been through three of these things," he said. "But I've never seen winds this high."
Ten minutes later, Scott drove out of the subdivision.
Orange County's Carbon Canyon fire quickly spread northeast into the foothills of San Bernardino County where at least six homes were destroyed in Sleepy Hollow and in the Chino Hills area. About 200 residents from the Sleepy Hollow area, just over the county line in San Bernardino County, were evacuated, as were more residents in other areas on the Chino Hills.