A busboy arrested for starting the fatal fire at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel has told police that he accidentally set the blaze with a marijuana cigarette while he was engaged in a homosexual act.

Philip Bruce Cline, 23, told officers that he was on the eight floor of the hotel with a man he knew only as "Joe" when the lighted end of the cigarette came into contact with a drape, police Sgt. John Conner told reporters at a news briefing today. Conner said Cline made the statements to officers late Wednesday, the second time he was questioned about the Tuesday night fire, which killed eight persons and injured more than 200.

Authorities are skeptical of Cline's story, and are not convinced that it was an accident. Moreover, the fire involved four separate blazes, and Det. Sgt. Bob Hilliard told the Los Angeles Times that three smaller fires on the second and third floors of the hotel's east tower did not appear to have been set by Cline.Hilliard suggested that other arsonists might have been at work, and said the investigation is continuing.

Cline, who turned in the first alarm at the hotel and later told reporters that he had tried to extinguish the blaze with a trash can full of water, was arrested after he made what homicide detectives called "inconsistent statements" about his role in the biggest of the four fires, all of which appeared deliberately set.

At a probable-cause hearing today, Cline was ordered held without bail pending arraignment next week on eight counts of murder and one count of first-degree arson.

As Cline stood, solemn and silent, before Justice of the Peace Earle White Jr., the knotted bedsheets still hung from the broken windows of the 30-story Hilton, and this desert Babylon of blinding neon and bonanza fantasies was a spooked city, as if dice that forever rolled sevens were coming up only snake eyes now.

The bizare revelations from Cline today seemed not out of place in this surrealistic town, where reality melds into fantasy and fantasy occasionally melds into reality.

It is a town that has learned to package man's strange fascination with violence. Las Vegas learned early how to turn gangland killings into part of the legend that draws people into the town's 44,000 hotel rooms, and learned two decades ago how to make atomic explosions at the nearby Nevada test range into tourist attractions.

In the six-story geodesic dome on the grounds at Caesar's Palace, the masses are entertained by the sensory shock of light-and-sound shows that recreate the awe and terror of the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens.

But the recreation of Hollywood's towering inferno -- twice, now, in the last three months -- was not on the agenda of the most imaginative Las Vegas show master.

At moments this week the world's most tinsel city seemed to be breaking down in its on self-created mix of image and reality.

At the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority the director of advertising, Herbert Lehrtar, acknowledged that the fires will have "had public relations value for a while." But he quickly added, "I don't think this will hurt us particularly over the long run."

"It's a disastrous thing," said Bob Schmuck, whose job is to attract conventions to Las Vegas. "We'll have to do a stronger selling job."

The selling, however, was becoming difficult. The state of Nevada and its economy-dominating tourist industry was beginning to reel under a 13-month string of bad luck only highlighted by the two sensational hotel fires.

On New Year's Day 1980, revelers marching out of Reno casinos to celebrate the New Year quickly turned violent, battled police and smashed windows. One person was killed in the riot.

Six months ago, at Lake Tahoe, that resort area's largest casino was nearly destroyed by an extortionist's bomb.

In north Lake Tahoe one person was killed recently when a fire destroyed Kelley's Nugget casino.

In Las Vegas, since the MGM Grand fire Nov. 21, arson attempts have been made against two other casino hotels and a third casino hotel was evacuated without injury when electrical equipment caught fire outside.

It has been the longest string of bad luck in ths gambling state's history. And this week along the skyscraper row of the Las Vegas Strip, visitors as well as local officials seemed lost in what once was a cultivated conflict between illusion and substance.

In high-rise hallways, tourists were pacing the distance from their hotel rooms to fire stairwells, searching ceilings for smoke detectors, and sprinklers.

Today an elevator door opened high in Caesar's Palace, far above the sound and no one was there. Then a handful of tourists panted down the hallway, apologetically excusing themselves for the delay: "We were checking out our escape route." They were sheepish but not smiling.

Across the street at the Flamingo, which had its own small one-room fire on the 23rd floor Monday night, tourists clustered around a fire extinguisher box, noting that the glass was already broken.

Then all went on with their Vegas holiday escapism, clustering into the casinos to hover over the green felt, hover at the brink of the fantasy of instant fortune.

On Tuesday night at Caesar's Palace, the gamblers played on while the Hilton burned.