Capt. Eric Stephens of the Los Angeles Fire Department ducks under tape… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
A rash of arson fires in the dark of night set Los Angeles on edge over New Year's Eve, and authorities deployed hundreds of extra firefighters, patrol cars, undercover officers and helicopters to stop the attacks.
On Saturday night, firefighters rushed to multiple fires, quickly extinguishing a vehicle fire in a Hollywood carport and responding to another in the massive parking structure at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Those blazes followed at least 38 other suspicious fires between Thursday night and Saturday morning, making it the worst wave of arson since the 1992 riots.
"Whoever is doing this is really messing with people's lives," said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Jamie Moore.
FULL COVERAGE: Arson fires
Most of the blazes were started on automobiles, but some spread to homes and apartments. The attacks ranged from the Westside to Hollywood and from the San Fernando Valley south to Lennox. By Saturday night, the Los Angeles police and fire departments were leading a multi-agency campaign across the county.
"We're pulling out all the stops," Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said. "We're hoping that the person or people responsible will be brought to swift and complete justice."
Extra firefighters were reporting to stations across Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Burbank and Glendale, while investigators set up a telephone hotline, interviewed witnesses and ran down tips. Officials announced at least $35,000 in rewards for information leading to a conviction in the case.
"We've reassigned detectives from Major Crimes Division and Robbery-Homicide, exclusively to find who's doing this," said LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith. "We've got dozens of detectives working around the clock."
Police arrested two people Friday on suspicion of lighting fires, but said they were not suspects in the arson rampage. Based on witness interviews, authorities said they were searching for a man driving a white and tan mid-1990s Lexus ES300. However, the large number of fires sparked over the two-day period led law enforcement sources to speculate that more than one arsonist was at large.
The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was open, said it's possible some of the blazes were the work of copycats.
The fires occurred when many people were enjoying the holidays with friends and family.
Sidni Appleseed Myles, 42, said she heard an explosion in the carport underneath her North Hollywood apartment about 2 a.m. Saturday.
Seeing the flames out the window, Myles ran outside in her nightgown with an out-of-town guest and her two teenage daughters, screaming, "Fire!"
The tenants dashed out to find four cars engulfed in flames that then reached to the balcony and ignited an outer wall of Myles' apartment on Colfax Avenue.
"You can't believe the inferno that was there. It was incredible," said her friend, Ray Carroll, a teacher from New Jersey.
"I'm just glad to be alive," said Myles.
Carl Lybecker, 32, who lived next door to the Colfax apartments, said it was sheer luck that no one was injured.
"The scary part is being so vulnerable in the middle of the night," he said. "These people woke up. But what if they were sleeping? What if they had been taking sleep medication?"
A few blocks away in Valley Village, Josh Mills and his wife were alarmed about the fires in their old West Hollywood neighborhood as they watched the news Friday evening. "I can't believe this," Mills said.
Then, as they slept around 2 a.m., someone pounded on their door and yelled, "Your car's on fire!"
At first, Mills thought it might be a ruse for a home-invasion robbery. But his wife looked out the window and saw flames under his BMW sedan parked on the street.
Mills, 43, ran into the cold night in his pajamas. A small fire was burning from what looked like a rag or newspaper under his engine. He thought about trying to kick it away, but decided it was too dangerous. In seconds, the fire spread beneath the hood. The front tires exploded "like bombs," then the back tires burst, he said. Within a few minutes, the car was consumed.
Fire officials declined to discuss how the fires were set, but Mills said arson investigators told him that the fire may have been started with Sterno fuel.
"It's the holiday season, goodwill toward men, and here's somebody who's definitely not understanding that," Mills said.
In Sun Valley, Steve Diaz, 26, and Michelle Villegas, 25, woke up around 2:20 a.m. after hearing windows shattering in their co-op apartment building. Villegas called 911 and then they struggled to find their way as smoke poured in.
"As soon as we went out, the heat burned your face," said Diaz, a lab technician.
Firefighters were already there and guided them to safety. But the couple lost their car, parked in the carport, and maybe their home. At least eight apartments, including theirs, were seriously damaged.
"I don't know that it's even sunk in yet, what's happened," said Diaz.
In all, 12 vehicles burned in the Valley early Saturday, three in the Wilshire Division of the LAPD, one on the Westside and one in Lennox, officials said. The night before, 21 fires broke out, mostly around Hollywood and West Hollywood. Authorities said a conservative estimate of property damage was $350,000.
Police asked people to leave lights on in carports and parking structures, and to report tips to 877-LAPD247 or 800-222-TIPS.
FULL COVERAGE: Arson fires
Times staff writers Catherine Saillant and Richard Winton contributed to this report.