Suspect in Canyon Fire Tells a Muddled Story : Arson: In jailhouse interview, transient says he was trying ‘to get high or something. . . . There was nothing to do out there.’


A disturbed transient arrested on suspicion of starting a brush fire that charred more than 6,600 acres in Orange and San Bernardino counties offered conflicting and often apologetic accounts Wednesday as to how the fire started.

During a jailhouse interview, Peter Diaz Reyes initially said he started the fire accidentally while trying to boil some coffee in the dry hills of Carbon Canyon near Brea. He gave fire investigators a similar version of events after his arrest Wednesday night.

But he went on to give a markedly different, and sometimes confused, account, saying that he lit the blaze out of boredom and frustration.

“I was trying, you know, to get high or something. There was nothing to do out there,” he said. At one point, the husky, unshaven 29-year-old man said he hoped that starting the fire might get him some attention from his parents so that “maybe they’ll take me to a restaurant or something and buy me some food.”


Later, Reyes said he lit a stack of leaves afire because “I was upset and angry, depressed.”

The fire was set about 11 a.m. Wednesday in two locations, a quarter-mile apart, on the north side of Carbon Canyon Road across from Carbon Canyon Regional Park in Brea.

Reyes, a homeless man from Blythe, near the Arizona border, appeared shocked when told that the fire had raged out of control for hours and destroyed or damaged 14 homes in its path.

“God. Did the people panic about the fire--they turned it off, the Fire Department, didn’t they? They should have,” Reyes said, fidgeting nervously in the medical ward of the Orange County Jail, used to house inmates with mental or physical problems.


“Do I have to pay for the damage?” he asked repeatedly. Then he added: “I would have paid for all that stuff. If I find a job, I’ll go out and pay for all the damage.”

Reyes said he had been wandering in Orange County for several weeks before he came across a “gas company"--the Santa Fe Energy Co. building--and decided to take a nap under a nearby tree Wednesday.

When he awoke, Reyes said, someone at the gas company told him to leave the premises and, some time later, he broke some windows at the building. Asked why he broke the windows, he said the breaking of the glass “had a pretty noise to it, like chandeliers.”

Then, Reyes said, he lit a stack of dry leaves on fire with some matches he had found at a local grocery store and, a few minutes later, lit a second fire nearby. “I knew what I was doing--lighting a fire. . . . I lit the gas company on fire,” he said.


“The whole place set on fire. The wind was blowing and the fire went really quickly. Everything was on fire, the grass, the leaves. . . . It looked like somebody dropped a bomb on the place.”

Although disoriented as to times and details, Reyes said he had spent some time behind bars for what he described as petty thefts in the Blythe area, probation violations and assault with a deadly weapon after he attacked his father with a steak knife.

Court and police officials in Blythe and Riverside County did not provide specifics on Reyes’ convictions, but Lt. Bob Grady, head of investigations in the Blythe Police Department, confirmed Reyes’ general account of his criminal history. He said Reyes was never implicated in any arson as far as he knew. “It’s a small town, and I remember him as a kid on the streets. I wouldn’t say he was a real good kid, but he wasn’t real bad either.”

Orange County Jail psychiatric officials, citing confidentiality restrictions, declined to discuss their examination of Reyes or whether he has any history of mental health problems. But some fire officials have already formed their own impressions from having talked to him.


“He doesn’t seem to be extremely reliable,” said Orange County Fire Capt. Dan Young. “I don’t think he’s entirely with the program.”

Times staff writer Ted Johnson contributed to this report.