Eric Matthys, 34, was at work when he looked out a window and saw clouds of smoke billowing near his Santa Barbara home. All night long, the University of California chemistry professor watched the raging brush fire through binoculars. His house survived the night, but the next day the winds changed. "Suddenly the fire came back up the mountain and engulfed the house, " he says. When the blaze subsided, all he had left were the remnants of a wood stove, a chimney, a bathtub and a barbecue.
Summer turned southern California into a tinderbox last week. In the fourth year of a regional drought, temperatures bubbled well past the 100-degree mark, reaching 112 degrees Fahrenheit in Los Angeles. From tony Santa Barbara south to San Diego County, brush was dangerously dry, and countless trees were dead or dying from infestations of bugs. Over a few days, 13 large fires and many small blazes ignited. Most were set off by heat lightning and other natural causes of combustion, but investigators believe arsonists started nearly 20 percent of the fires. By the end of the week, two people were dead, 637 buildings burned and more than 20,000 acres charred. The inferno's estimated property damage: $300 million.
Two of the most devastating fires--in Santa Barbara and in Glendale, near downtown Los Angeles--were the work of arsonists. In Orange County, police arrested Peter Diaz Reyes, a drifter who says he accidentally set two smaller blazes while trying to build cook fires. But in Glendale, where fire destroyed an estimated $30 million in property, witnesses reported seeing two young men toss something into the brush. In the vicinity, investigators later found a butane lighter wedged open by a pen. Officials say that the Santa Barbara inferno, in which 524 structures went up in flames, set a southern California record for the number of buildings destroyed in a single fire. Because one woman died trying to escape, the Santa Barbara arsonist will face murder charges; Gov. George Deukmejian last week offered $50,000 rewards for information about the culprits.
Charred twig: Brush fires took their highest death toll in Arizona, where temperatures peaked at 122 degrees. Six firefighters from a state prison died trying to put out a blaze that leveled 24,000 acres of national forest. Wherever the fires struck, burned-out families have to start from scratch. David and Jennifer Smargon, both 27, returned to their Santa Barbara condominium to find a blackened bicycle and a charred twig that used to be a potted Christmas tree. Most upset of all was their 2-year-old daughter, Sierra. "This isn't my home," she said. "My home is all gone." It was a poignant scene, and unless the heat and drought let up, one that could be replayed throughout the summer.