An arsonist or arsonists set five cars ablaze early Sunday in a potentially dangerous crime with no clear motive.
Investigators are probing whether the rash of Eastside arsons is connected to recent suspicious car fires on the Westside and in Aptos.
Sunday's fires, reported between 2:50 and 3:30 a.m., destroyed BMW, Jaguar and Acura sedans, a Honda Passport and a Toyota pickup, police said. The vehicles were parked on Market Street, Grunewald Court, Branciforte Drive and Grant Street.
On Branciforte Drive, flames from the Acura leapt into a tree feet away from a propane tank. And on Market Street, a fire in the Passport came within about 9 feet of the home, police said.
"This is an unusual act of vandalism," Capt. Steve Clark said. "And it's very frightening to have someone light your car on fire in front of your house. Not only is there the costly damage to the car, but the potential for residual damage and injury."
The cars seem to have been targeted at random, Clark said.
"It appears to be a crime of opportunity," he said.
Police believe the arsonist or arsonists entered the cars, poured an unknown accelerant inside and set them on fire, he said.
Investigators hope to uncover a lead from a home video monitoring system and will check area gas stations for clues as well, he said.
Mark Ramos of Santa Cruz Fire said four car arsons were reported on the Westside between February and May. The cars
were torched on four nights on Gharkey Street and Almar Avenue, Ramos said.
Those early morning fires also were started by an accelerant poured on the outside of the cars, he said.
"It is unusual, but it's hard to say if they are linked," Ramos said. "We are waiting to hear back from the Police Department to see if there is any pattern as to who owns the cars."
The cars Sunday were well-involved when firefighters arrived, he said.
Neighbors reporting hearing explosions, he said, which could have come from tires or the accelerant.
"They burn hot and fast," Ramos said.
Orie Peifer, who lives on Branciforte Drive, said the sounds of a fire truck woke him Sunday. He went outside to see his father's Acura on fire. The flames had started to burn a tree near a neighbor's propane tank.
"It's baffling," Peifer said. "I don't know who would do something so stupid."
Peifer's neighbor, Forest Bayer, said a deputy knocked on his door and told him to get ready for a possible evacuation.
Bayer said he hasn't seen anything like it in his 30 or so years there.
"I just figured they had a bunch of meth and it blew up or something," he said. "It's too bad."
Robin Davidson, 30, said the 1991 Toyota truck that she uses for her landscape business, RobInscapes, was destroyed on Grunewald Court. Several tools inside were also ruined, she said. Her roommate had recently bought the four-door BMW that was set on fire, she said.
Her truck was unlocked, she said.
"It's a safe neighborhood," Davidson said. "I'm just still dumbfounded. I don't know why someone would do this. It's like the thing that happened downtown on May 1 -- if this is activism or anger or terrorism, I just don't understand what good could possibly come of this or what point it is going to prove."
In Aptos, the motive for a car fire earlier this month is also unclear.
Aptos Fire Chief Tom Crosser said investigators have yet to determine what caused June 8 fires in a Honda sedan and four trash bins at Deer Park Shopping Center.
Lynn Miller of Aptos said he called 911 about 1 a.m. after hearing crashing sounds followed by explosions. He said he could see flames from behind some trees near his home.
"It was very alarming," he said. "You wonder if it's just random. This stuff has a tendency to catch on."
Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Campos said there is a strong indication the same person is responsible.
"It's fairly rare," he said. "And it's an act of malicious mischief that is particularly egregious in light of the recent fire disasters we've had in our county. No one in this county is a stranger to the damage fire can cause."