[Noozhawk's note: A suspect was arrested in the case, Santa Maria police reported Sunday. Click here for more information.]
The blaze was reported shortly before 2:30 a.m. at the Town Center Hotel, 215 N. Broadway, according to Santa Maria Fire Chief Dan Orr.
"Police officers on scene reported fire on the first floor and spreading to the second floor," Orr said. "Officers were assisting people with evacuation until smoke conditions inside forced the officers out."
A ladder truck was positioned on the north side of the structure, closest to Mill Street, allowing people to escape from the second-floor roof, Orr said.
"Occupants were hanging out of their windows on the south side of the hotel due to heavy smoke conditions," he noted.
Firefighters used 35-foot ladders on the south side of the structure and rescued four people from third-floor windows, said Orr, who credited the work of other fire crews who were battling the blaze.
No firefighters were injured.
Forty-three people were left homeless, and a shelter was set up at the Minami Center.
"The fire appears to be suspicious and is being treated a crime scene," Orr said. "Santa Maria Police Department is leading the investigation with assistance from the Santa Barbara County Arson Task Force."
A preliminary damage estimate was $1 million for the structure and $400,000 for contents.