Hot, dry Santa Ana winds hit Southern California with a vengeance today. Roaring in from the desert, at times with gusts of up to 100 mph, they ripped off roofs, upended cars and sent normally balmy temperatures soaring.

Unlike tornadoes, which can whirl in, wreak their havoc and move on, the Santa Ana winds are a constant and sometimes eerie force of nature. They cause tree branches to screech all night and sometimes seem like invisible hands, so powerful they can push airplanes like so many toys on the tarmac.

Their arrival comes as no surprise this time of year, but meteorologists said they had unusual force and left much of the region dusting off today.

Beginning Sunday night, the hot desert breezes that blow from the east whipped Los Angeles and surrounding areas, and led forecasters to warn of extreme high winds in the deserts and mountains today and Tuesday morning. High wind warnings were issued throughout the rest of the region.

"It is stronger than we've had them in recent memory," said National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Keeton.

More than 200,000 people were without electricity as tree branches and flying debris knocked down power lines. Southern California Edison, which serves 12 million people, lost nearly 200 power poles overnight.

"We get hit hard by Mother Nature every once in a while," Southern California Edison spokesman Tom Boyd said.

The National Weather Service issued warnings nearly two days before the winds came, giving residents time to batten down the hatches by shoring up weak trees and other hazards on their property.

Preparation did not keep commuters, many back to work after holiday vacations, from being caught in traffic jams, as downed power lines caused signal outages and road closings. A one-mile section of road in Arcadia that lost 29 power poles was closed. Crews were working to restore power, but some residents could be without electricity for days, Boyd said.

In Riverside, a passenger was killed when winds drove a fiber-glass cover from a pickup truck through the windshield of the car he was riding in.

A plane parked at Ontario International Airport was damaged when 90 mph winds banged into a jetway, and several other planes had to be inspected after debris smashed into them. More than a dozen flights were delayed.

"Those winds are just smoking," Keeton said.

After several weeks of wet weather, today's high temperatures broke numerous records. At 76 degrees, Santa Barbara edged past its 45-year-old high of 75, and Burbank was a sweltering 85 degrees, breaking the record of 83 set in 1969.

Recent rains have made area hillsides green, but the strong, gusty winds and high temperatures were the perfect ingredients for wildfires. Several hundred firefighters battled three blazes in the seaside community of Malibu in 50 mph winds, including one that gobbled up more than 600 acres in less than an hour. No injuries were reported, and the cause of the fires remained under investigation.

Downed power lines touched off other fires.

The high winds can be as beneficial as they are destructive, clearing the region of smog to reveal spectacular mountain views.

"We get some beautiful sunsets when we have these winds," Keeton said. "It's a perfect day for the beach."

Powerful winds toppled trees onto a home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., damaging the garage, living room and roof.