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Santa Ana Winds Drive Fierce Wildfires Through Malibu Canyon, Beyond

Aired October 21, 2007 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: For our North American viewers, Fredricka Whitfield has the latest on those fires in Southern California -- Fred.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR, BREAKING NEWS: Thanks so much, Wolf. I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta.

A powerful line of fires in Southern California now threatening homes, businesses, significant real estate. You're looking at various pictures -- views, coming from different areas of the Malibu area, in the L.A County area. There are two significant fires taking place in the Los Angeles area; one in the L.A. National Forest area. And now this one where you're seeing the pictures that are damaging structures in the Malibu area.

These are of greatest concern because of the structural damage already underway and the threat to more damage that could be taking place. The Pacific Coast Highway already being shut down in some parts; and even the Pepperdine University campus is being evacuated. That's why evacuations are under way -- not just residences, but the evacuations involving the Pepperdine University campus, where there are a lot of students on campus living in dorms. Many of them have been evacuated as well as the staff and faculty.

Our Vince Gonzales is on the ground there in the Malibu area. Let's get the latest updates from him -- Vince.

VINCE GONZALES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As you can tell from the winds here, they're really blowing hard, near hurricane force. That's why we have the goggles on. There's a lot of ash in the air, getting in people's eyes. There are actually spot fires, thrown by the winds, which have burned over here near the old city hall. There have been firefighters staging there all morning, picking off those spot fires.

And if you go up the hill from there, you go down over here, there's a green house up here, you really can't see it from the smoke. It's now fully engulfed. There are crews there. What you can just barely see through this big wall of clouds of smoke is Pepperdine University, where they have evacuated most, if not all, the students. There are still some people in the student center we're told, trying to see if there is anybody who didn't get the evacuation order.

The big problem for the firefighters are these spot fires, which are coming down the hill here, setting fire to brush, setting fire to trees. Some of them have actually already crossed the Pacific Coast Highway, making their way to the water. We have seen cars burning, businesses.

What is really a big problem for the firefighters, whether they're trying to attack this from the ground, or from the air, are these winds. They did get some fixed-wing aircraft up earlier, but they can only put them up momentarily. And the helicopters, even, are having a tough time with the firefight.

There are some celebrities that also live in the area. We're told their homes are threatened as well. But the big fear is that this fire really picks up and we get a replay of the Malibu fires from the early '90s, where it came through heavily populated areas, whipped out homes and didn't stop burning until it hit the water -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Wow. So, Vince, give me a better idea of the geography there. When we talk about these two fires taking place. One that has covered about 500 acres of the national forest; and then, what we're zeroing in on now with 50 acres in the Malibu area. This is mostly a residential section of Malibu that is being threatens here, is that right?

GONZALES: Well, right now, the fire is definitely moved through some residential areas. It's not yet hit the big heavily populated area of Malibu. But it could very well go that direction. What you have is the university, lots of homes up in the hills, and you've got these steep canyons that the winds normally whip through. But now we've got these hot dry Santa Anas that are 60, 80 mile an hour gusts moving through here. And they're moving through an area that hasn't burned in quite some time.

So, these hills up here are totally dry. If you came here yesterday, you would see them almost all brown. It's just perfect tinder for the fire. And the fires it throwing embers our, it looks like at least a mile or two ahead of itself, hitting these dry areas along the coast road and starting more fires. Trucks have been racing up and down the Pacific Coast Highway trying to stop those fires, so they don't merge and become an even bigger problem.

WHITFIELD: OK, Vince. Thanks so much. We're going to check back with you in a moment.

In the meantime, Rick Dominguez, with the L.A. County Fire Department, is on the line with us right now.

And so, Mr. Dominguez, give me an idea of how much a problem it is that you have these spot fires that are mostly fuelled by these burning embers, that are just floating around there, because of these 60 to 80 mile per hour wind gusts that Vince was just telling us about?

INSPECT. RICK DOMINGUEZ, L.A. COUNTY FIRE DEPT.: Yes, ma'am, it's hard to predict where those embers are going to land. Like I heard one of your newscasters say, they could fly up to a mile or two. And then land, and with the erratic wind behavior, it's hard to say where it's going to land. As you can see what is happening in the last couple hours, it's hard to predict. So, what we're doing is we are trying to -- we have a look-out in the sky. And as soon as we see spot fires, we will be sending fire engines, strike teams, and helicopter drops to that area.

WHITFIELD: That's really explains a lot. Because it was pretty perplexing to see some of these images come in, a bit ago, when we saw this one castle-like structure -- which we understand now to be a place where a lot of weddings take place -- et cetera, was being engulfed by these flames, when around it you saw no other fire. You kind of wonder why is this single structure, just out of nowhere, is engulfed here? So, that explains it. You're saying these embers can travel that far.

DOMINGUEZ: That particular castle sits up on top -- high up on a hill there. It was out of the path of the fire, but because of the embers and the winds, next thing you know, it's fully engulfed.

WHITFIELD: You have an evacuation order underway, right? Which involved how many people in that area?

DOMINGUEZ: Right now we have approximately 200 homes evacuated. We have Pepperdine College. Malibu Crest Community, Sierra (ph) Retreat Community, and Perco (ph) Community evacuated, and our evacuation centers are Zuma Beach, and the Firestone Field House, in Malibu.

WHITFIELD: Give me an idea what folks are up against. When they carry out these evacuations, if they haven't left the area, how difficult is it for them to get on the roads, to travel without this danger of, you know, these flying embers in the air?

DOMINGUEZ: Right, we have several law enforcement officers directing the evacuations. The citizens of Malibu are savvy due to the history of the fires. They know it's not worth it to try to make an attempt to -- sometimes you'll see a fire and somebody will be there with their water hose. That's really isn't going to do any good. The evacuation is being held by law enforcement.

WHITFIELD: You do always see that, whenever you talk about wild fires, people are dousing. Kind of wetting their roof tops for the most part to see if that can help in any way deflect any kind of flying embers. You're saying in this case forget about it.

DOMINGUEZ: In this case, because of the winds and the dry humidity, you can wet your roof down and five minutes later, it's going to be dried up again. Our main concern is to get the people out. And the winds approximately right now are between 60 and 70 miles per hour. And they're so erratic it's hard to say which way they're going to go.

WHITFIELD: Right. How in the world is L.A. County Fire able to handle what looks like a colossal undertaking?

DOMINGUEZ: Well, what we do is we have -- right now, we have approximately over 500 personnel, and we also have strike teams from all over the Western United States coming in, as we speak. And what we're going do is try to just have structure protection, and try to predict where, even though it's almost impossible to predict, we're going to try to just do what we can.

WHITFIELD: What is structure protect mean? What does that entail?

DOMINGUEZ: Structure protection means, basically, we'll send a strike team of engines, usually about five engines into a neighborhood. And we'll basically prepare the homes in case it gets ruined by a fire, we'll try --

WHITFIELD: Like kind of running fire lines or something?

DOMINGUEZ: Right, well, in a neighborhood of streets, we'll set up our apparatus. We'll hook up to a fire hydrant, and then we'll walk around the house and take down, if possible, any flammable material that is up against house. If somebody has firewood against the house, which we don't recommend, or patio furniture, we'll throw it in the pool. We'll try to get anything that could cause it to catch fire away from the home; and then we'll just stand by to protect the home.

WHITFIELD: When you look at the scene here, what is most daunting to you? What is most worrisome about what is up ahead?

DOMINGUEZ: Well, the most worrisome is actually the winds. And then also, we're hoping -- and we're just hoping -- that everybody takes heed to the fire and nobody tries to stay back to protect their homes.

WHITFIELD: All right. Rick Dominguez of the L.A. County Fire, thanks so much for your time. I know you have your hands full.

DOMINGUEZ: My pleasure.

WHITFIELD: Let's check in again with Vince Gonzales of CNN there on the ground there in Malibu. All of those things that Mr. Dominguez was talking about, so pronounced, so pertinent, Vince, but the biggest problem, the winds. You can't control it, and that's par of the problem, that's what's t is helping to fuel the blaze, right?

We're going to have to work on our audio problem there with Vince and try to reestablish that connection. We can see him clearly, but we just can't hear what he's saying.

You can see the winds, and he talked about why he's got his goggles on, because the winds are so intense, almost hurricane force wind gusts. We're talking about between 60 and 80 mile per hour wind gusts.

Hillary is in the Weather -- OK, sorry about that. We'll get back to Hillary, in a minute. It looks like we have reestablished our audio there, with Vince.

So, Vince, when we talk about hurricane force winds, 74 miles per hour is hurricane force. Now we're talking about hurricane-force winds gusts there, so, the kind of come in bursts. Give me an idea of how that is so difficult to stand there, and be able to talk, and really how that is making it much more difficult for the firefighters.

GONZALES: Well, it makes it more difficult for everybody. The reason we lost audio a minute ago, I'll bet was a burst of wind hit a cable or the dish or something. You just never know. I have seen crews out here trying to cover this story being almost knocked over by the wind.

The firefighters, the problem for them, as you can see, I'm wearing my goggles. Other people out here are as well, because I've already gotten ash in my eye. I'm sure they're dealing with much worse problems. It just picks up and blows right into your face. You can't even be looking for the fire without these things on. And it's just dropping embers all around you. The forecast is for these winds to let up as the day goes on, but you just never know with the Santa Anas. And doubling the problems here is the canyons where these winds normally whip through here.

Just a little while ago, we couldn't even see Pepperdine University behind me here, because the winds were blowing the fire and the smoke straight out towards the ocean. There was just one big, black wall cloud over this part of Malibu. Now it seems to have shifted a bit, and you can see the smoke in the hills. You can see the small fires burning.

We've actually seen some helicopters going overhead, which is a good sign. Which maybe they think there's a little let up in the wind, they can get those air crews up, because in some areas where this fire is burning, that's the only way to get at it. You either have to have crews hike in, which can take quite a long time, or you have to get an air crew in there and drop as much water or fire retardant on it. This is really a wind-driven fire. But it also has the help of the canyons and the really dry tinder that hasn't burned here in some time, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And what you mentioned, Vince, it's good to see those helicopters in the air. We also heard from the L.A. County Fire that it's a big problem, this wind, with the air assault. They're not able to get all of their air apparatus up there safely because the wind kinds of gusts can create a whole new problem.

GONZALES: It does. These winds actually allow the fire to create its own weather. The stiffer the winds, the more power the fire has, the more wind it creates. It can cause a lot of problems for these firefighters. We know a church was burning off in a canyon nearby here. And I think I heard you earlier say you saw video of a house sitting alone, on fire. And you couldn't figure out how the fire had gotten there. That's those embers.

They can sometimes be up to a quarter in size, red hot. This fire picks them up and throws them. That's what you're seeing behind me. The fire came over the hill, by Pepperdine, and it's just been tossing these embers down the hill into these heavily brushed areas, of these areas with trees, and they're just catching fire right away. And crews are having to hopscotch along this road here, trying to put those fires out before they become a bigger problem. WHITFIELD: And we see what appears to be a fire truck behind you, there, Vince. We're hearing some of the air assault above. Have you seen any residents? Have you seen folks trying to get out of there? I guess, with their prized possessions, even maybe some of their horses. Because I noticed earlier there are a lot of horse farms in the area. How are people getting out? Have you seen that while you have been on the ground?

GONZALES: I definitely have. There is a gas station not far from here and there were local residents sitting in the parking lot looking up, trying to figure out if their homes were in danger. There are some horse trucks that have passed us on the road, recently. I actually have a friend who has a horse up in this area who she's concerned about. So, people are trying to get up in here to get those animals out. Most of them were told to evacuate quite early, and to move on out. Now it's just a waiting game, hoping the firefighters can stop the blaze before it gets to their homes.


WHITFIELD: So, quite early, meaning, earlier today? Or even yesterday people were asked to leave.

GONZALES: I'm sorry?

WHITFIELD: You say quite early they were told to evacuate. Does that mean earlier today, or does that mean, even, yesterday? I guess reports of Santa Ana winds have been, you know, on the airwaves since Friday?

GONZALES: Right. I believe the evacuation order didn't come until overnight or very early this morning. Because the Santa Anas are a fact of life here, and I know that probably all of these fire agencies were on very high alert. As soon as they heard the prediction for Santa Anas, all it takes is one ember. What we were told was that perhaps a power line came down, sparked a blaze in a small area. They didn't get to it in time, or people didn't report it right away. Perhaps it was in one of these remote canyons. That's perhaps how the blaze got started. That's the initial cause, they're thinking it might be what started all of this, right now.

WHITFIELD: Wow. That is something else. How about for folks who may have been away from their homes, hearing about all this? They want to get to their homes there in the Malibu area, that is under the evacuation, any chance of them getting in to grab any last-minute possessions, or no way?

GONZALES: It really depends on the area. If it's an area under a mandatory evacuation order, the law enforcement probably are not going to let them through the check points. They're just going to have to wait it out.

If they're in an area right near where people are being evacuated, they're already going through there, telling people to be ready, have their car packed, have those life insurance policies, those lists of what property you have in your home, pictures, pets, have them ready to go, because if the wind turns just a bit, those people could find themselves evacuating quite quickly, too.

WHITFIELD: Wow, frightening stuff. All right, Vince. Thanks so much. We're going to check back with you.

Meantime, let's check in with Pepperdine University and how the folks there are handling all of this. We know evacuation orders are in effect, affecting Pepperdine as well. Rick Gibson is with the public affairs office.

So, Rick, everyone is out, or are you getting people out now?

RICK GIBSON, PUBLIC AFFIARS, PEPPERDINE UNIVERSITY: Let me clarify that. There are been evacuations, but the evacuations have been from the dorms and the faculty homes that are on campus. We are all here on campus. Pepperdine has a shelter-in-place program. So they have not evacuated the campus. There's no plan at this time to do that. The students and faculty and the staff, all of the residents on campus have gathered in either Firestone Field House, which is our event center, or sports arena, or in Tyler Campus Center.

WHITFIELD: OK, so now I'm confused. If it's not safe enough to live there, if you live in a dorm, or even a faculty homes, why would anybody want or even be permitted to stay on campus, period?

GIBSON: It is only a precaution. The fire is in Malibu Canyon, which is one of areas -- is one of the roads into the area. It is both the judgment of the university as well as the L.A. County Fire Department, and all, that we stay in -- that we shelter in place. That is the plan. So we're confident that our students are out of harm's way, certainly at the moment.

WHITFIELD: OK, so why take the chance?

GIBSON: Again, I don't know there is a chance that we're taking. I think the plan is as it is, and it's working as we have planned. We have provisions there. And do not see that the students are in any danger. The fire is not near any of those two centers.

WHITFIELD: All right. So give me the temperament of the people who decided, you included, to stay there. What are you thinking or feeling?

GIBSON: Well, you can imagine it's a pretty frightful thing. I mean, you're awakened in the middle of night. You realize that something is going on. You need to respond and gather your family, and your pets, and things. So you have to get your wits about you. But once you understand the situation, you know, some calm is now prevailing. At first, it was pretty tense.

But the students, there was a door-to-door round up of students and faculty and staff. There was text messages that went out. There was an emergency blog that went out. And people made their way to those two spots just as they had been prepared to do. And were fairly comfortable doing that.

We're kind of just all hanging out waiting now. But we're doing fine. We have food, water. We have masks and by and large, everyone is fairly calm.

WHITFIELD: So, I don't mean to harp on it, because it's just is perplexing to me. Even you have a shelter program, in place, you have food rations, you've got masks and all that. I mean, it seems as though you're poised, ready to use all of those things, but wouldn't the safer route be simply to leave if it means you have folks who live on campus who were asked -- or demanded to leave, I guess I'm just kind of still confused as to why you stare in the face of danger?

GIBSON: Well, actually, I wouldn't characterize it that way at all. If you were to be in the area, you would know there are only a couple ways in, and a couple ways out. One of the ways is involved in the fire. So all involved have gone through this drill and realized this is not staring danger in the face. This is the safest way to deal with this. And if there needs to be a change at some point, we'll be prepared to do that. But right now, we do not need to take that step.

WHITFIELD: Has this happened before where Pepperdine has been in this kind of situation before, where you had to make some decisions where you had Santa Ana fuelled fires like this?

GIBSON: Something like even 13, 15 years ago, I don't remember the exact date. That preceded me here. But the campus has had fires in the area and even near the campus. But because of the way the campus is situated, and the fire break lines that are in place, we actually became at one point, the center for other Malibu residents to come to because we were in a pretty safe location.

So yes, we have had some experience with this before. That's why some of the plans that have been developed are currently in place.

WHITFIELD: All right, Rick Gibson, public affairs at Pepperdine University, we wish you all the best, and we'll check in with you to see how you all progress.

GIBSON: Thank you very much.

WHITFIELD: As firefighters try to get a handle of this blaze. That's the problem. It's difficult to do because these blazes are being fuelled by these Santa Ana winds. The winds gusts measured at hurricane force, between 60 and 80 mile per hour wind gusts. And I say blazes because what happens is the winds are carrying these hot burning embers to various locations. They can travel as far as a mile and then start a new blaze. It started out with a 50-acre blaze there, mostly in the Malibu area.

Now we're hearing from one of our reporters on the ground, Vince Gonzales, that their initial indications are it could have been a power line that may have come down and somehow sparked this blaze in what have been incredibly dry conditions. We'll have much more from the newsroom, right after this.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News. WHITFIELD: Big and damaging fires now in Southern California. You're looking at live images right now of structures burning out of control in Malibu, California, some of the areas that are under siege right now from the blazes.

These houses may just be sporadically places because these burning embers are just being scattered across the sky. Here, a pretty densely populated area, and we don't have an explanation as of yet, as to how that structure -- or two structures, now -- but it could be as simple as these burning embers that are just kind of floating in the air from the 50-acre wildfire there in Malibu, they have simply landed, just spontaneously on these structures and now you see the blaze under way.

And firefighters have their hands full because they're trying to fight the fire from the ground, as well as from the air, but part of the problem is these strong Santa Ana winds make it very difficult for the air assault to take place like the L.A. Fire Department would like it to.

Vince Gonzales is in Malibu. He's got his goggles on because of those winds and all kinds of debris simply gets in your eyes, and it makes for a pretty miserable condition.

Vince, what is happening now?

GONZALES: Fredricka, you're right. Imagine for the firefighters being out here all day and having to walk into this. Definitely miserable conditions. One little ray of good news is up behind me, we can actually see Pepperdine University now, which is something we could not do when we arrived here this morning.

It seems like they've done a pretty good job of working on the spot fires around the university, the homes where the students were evacuated from, but up in that area is where one of our CNN crews got pictures of at least three homes burning earlier today.

And as we go down the ridge here, this is the trouble area, behind the university, up in here, in what is known as Malibu Creek canyon. That's where the fire is burning hard. Now it's kind of south of us. And in that area is this castle you have been showing video of, Hodge Castles, a multimillion dollar home that we're not sure how the fire started there, but what we're told is perhaps it was an ember. That's the most likely scenario.

The fire is now moving this way. You can see, there's a helicopter, most likely an air attack crew trying to get in. Because there are still spot fires burning all up and down the ridges here. We're told now that there are -- at least one house near the water burning, which means the fire has moved on down to the ocean.

And that is really the nightmare scenario for the firefighters. The blaze comes out of the hills, gets into the heavily populated areas just south of here. The Malibu everybody thinks about, when they watch TV, where all the stars live. If those multimillion dollar homes start to burn, the fire will have the perfect walkway right down to the beach and there is nothing to stop it.

And the winds, you can feel the gusts -- or at least, I can feel these gusts -- they're hitting us pretty hard. John, our photographer is having to brace himself just to stay upright. And the problem is, if these winds don't abate as the weather reports are promising, firefighters are going to have to face this all day long, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Yes, and Vince, just to add to your report, some of the stars we're talking about who call Malibu their home, Olivia Newton-John, Dick Van Dyke, even Mel Gibson. We don't know anything about their homes, where they are in proximity to where these fires are burning.

And the other thing you mentioned, at least one home right there on the water, that's burning, from a shot that we were able to see right before we came to you, Vince. It looks like two structures right near the water, and on fire. The last thing you usually think when you think of these beachside residents is of fire, because they're not in the kind of hillside area where all that dry brush is. So, possibly the flying embers was indeed the problem.

Vince, we'll check back with you in a moment. Meantime, Chris Sedens is a reporter with KFWB New Radio 980, there, in Los Angeles. He joins us now on the phone.

Chris, what are you observing?

CHRIS SEDENS, KFWB NEWS RADIO: Well, Fredricka, I arrived here a couple hours ago, driving up PCH. I tell you, I could see the smoke billowing from these fires as far back as the 10 Freeway, where it meets the 405, if you're familiar with Los Angels. That's a fair distance away. I kept driving down the 10, turning into PCH, and at the Topanga Canyon Road is where they started turning vehicles away, unless you were a local residents. Local residents were allowed to drive through.

But once I got through that, heading up to where I am now, which is Pacific Coast Highway and Malibu Canyon Road, just south of where I am now is where basically this fire, I believe, ignited. And it went from being a sunny, beautiful Southern California day into driving literally driving into black -- the smoke was just black, flames to the right of me on, I guess it would be the east side of the Pacific Coast Highway.

And I guess the big worry was that this fire would go over PCH and head towards the beach. Of course, there are multimillion dollar homes in this area. Kind of a scary drive during that short portion before we get to Pacific Coast and Malibu Canyon road, where it literally just became black, and the flames were right at the freeway.

WHITFIELD: Boy, it's remarkable stuff. And Chris how about all these burning cars? We're looking at video right now of a vehicle on fire. There were images earlier that showed just a row of cars on fire. Same thing? They think these like, flying, burning embers would spark the car fires, too? SEDENS: I guess that can happen, Fredricka. I have to tell you I'm not near any of the cars right now. Where I'm parked, I guess it's a distance away from where the vehicles are. It's fair to say that these burning embers are big enough and thick enough that they could, if they hit a car, I guess, ignite them on fire.

The big concern right now, and I guess maybe concern past, is that the Hodge Castle, a local landmark here, is totally engulfed in flames. As is the Malibu Presbyterian Church, several homes in the area. Pepperdine University it has now been evacuated.

Excuse me, the smoke is very thick. I'm told that about 1,000 students have been taken to the school's cafeteria, and a local gym as well. They'll be taken off campus as soon as they can. People are being evacuated at Zuma Beach.

But in speaking just a few minutes ago with the mayor pro tem here, a woman -- do I have her name here? Pamela Connelly Yulick (ph), she's concerned because it appears the fire is heading toward Zuma Beach. So right now the county evacuation center is set up there, but that could change.

Over top of me right now as we speak, Fredricka, is a massive fire dropping helicopter. I'm right between the freeway and the ocean. You can see these helicopters. There's a couple right near me. They're going toward the ocean, picking up water and bringing it back and dumping it on the hot spots.

WHITFIELD: Wow, that's something else. So, Zuma Beach, I'm trying to get my geography, in check here. Zuma Beach is that north or south of Malibu?

SEDEN: You know, I would have to check on that.

WHITFIELD: All right, sorry about that. All right, a little bit more about that castle. We saw some images, earlier, of that very castle that you're talking about, that was burning. We have since learned a little bit more information about what a landmark that castle is. And that it is the home of Lily Lawrence, who is quite popular. She's quite the philanthropist. And she apparently is one who has done a lot of charity work. And that her home sometimes was opened up for a number of events.

And to see it burning like this, and just to see the whole helpless, I guess, just situation that this castle is enduring, just like a lot of the other structures there. We don't know anything about whether anybody was actually in that castle. But it is, as you say, it's been Castle Kashan, there. It's the only castle in Malibu. We don't know anything about if there were folks inside, or how anyone has faired, whether the fire started after the evacuation order, in fact.

Maybe, Chris, you know more about the history of this place being a real fixture.

SEDENS: I can't tell you too much of the history, but I can tell you that we will find out soon, I guess, if anybody was in there. There is a good chance the castle would have been empty at the time. I understand that the sheriff's department is going to be holding a news conference very shortly. That's what the mayor pro tem has told me. Maybe we might find out, at that point, if anyone was in or around the castle at the time when the fire broke out.

WHITFIELD: Oh, good.

SEDENS: Again, the other major structure is that has burned here is the Malibu Presbyterian Church, as well as several homes.


SEDENS: And as you said, cars. And as you mentioned, before, I heard your earlier conversations with the reporter at the scene here, there are a lot of Hollywood movie stars who live in this area.


SEDENS: Including the likes of Mel Gibson. In fact, as I passed by that famous bar that he had his little incident in, Moon Shadows, on my way out here, which is just south of where all of this is happening.

But a lot of thick, black smoke, flames and, water-dropping helicopters in the area right now.

WHITFIELD: Nobody wants to see fires like this affecting anybody's home, whether they, you know, are on the low or the high end of the financial scale. You're at the PCH and Malibu Canyon Road, as you mentioned. As you were getting to that location, did you start to see a lot of folks coming out? Trying to get out with their horses in tow, with their pets, with their prized possessions, any of that?

SEDENS: Honestly, no, I did not see that. I saw a lot of people actually trying to get in, along with me, trying to into the area. Of course, this is a major tourist area, so the backup of cars was basically heading in towards where the fire was. They were all being turned away by police at that point. That was around Topanga Canyon Road.

Not so much people trying to get out. That may have changed now with all of the mandatory evacuations put into place. But mostly, it was people being turned away at Topanga Canyon Road, yeah.

And we should point out, we really should emphasize, I guess, the major problem right now is we have a lot of high brush. We're going through a terrible, terrible dry spell here in Southern California.


SEDENS: A lot of dry brush, low humidity, and these gusting, swirling winds. To be honest, I did one interview when I first got here. It was not usable because the winds were gusting so high, you couldn't make up what I was saying or the person I was talking to was saying. These winds, right now, they're swirling, they're gusting, and it's making it really, really difficult for these firefighters to get a handle on this blaze.

WHITFIELD: Right, they're so unpredictable.

SEDENS: And I was also told by the mayor pro tem, that they're expecting these winds to last at least through Tuesday.

WHITFIELD: Oh, my gosh.

SEDENS: And if that is the case, this fire could be burning for a while yet and could spread. And again, this is a densely populated area, so this is chaotic right now.

WHITFIELD: It really is. Wow, well, Chris Sedens you did a terrific job of painting the picture for us. We really appreciate it. You're with KFWB News Radio there. Be safe.

SEDENS: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: In the location where you are, too. And we'll check back with you.

Meantime, just a moment ago, if you were paying attention, about 30 seconds ago, we actually showed an image, it was live, again, of that castle that Chris and I were talking about called the Castle Kashan. At that very moment, when we had a chance to see it, it didn't look like the flames were burning like they were earlier. Maybe the fire is out. But, you know what? The structure itself looked decimated.

Josh Levs has been doing a lot of research on this castle, because it was the first structure that kind of caught our eye. It was the first structure we were able to see on the live feeds that was actually being engulfed by flames.

So, Josh, here in the newsroom, what more have you learned about that castle and let's hope, let's have the fingers crossed that nobody was inside at the time.

JOSH LEVS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, absolutely. There are residents of the castle. We don't have reason to believe there were people in there at time. We just don't know, either way. So far, authorities are not saying anything about anybody having been injured amid these fires, or whether there was anyone in any of the structures.

They are, as we've been hearing today, making efforts to get to the structures before they catch on fire.

However, Fred, I want to show you the power of these flames. So, we've been taking a look at this castle, right, Castle Kashan, I'm going to ask the control room to show you an image of the Castle Kashan, from its website. What that building is supposed to look like. There it is in the center, right there. That is what we're supposed to be seeing.

Keep in mind how powerful this is. As the fire inspector was telling Fred, just minutes ago, this castle was not directly in the path of the flames. What is happening today is that the winds are so powerful, they're carrying embers, and embers alone carried by wind can do that. Take a look at the before and after. It's extremely powerful.

We'll get more information for you throughout the day. This place does have a website. You can find out more information about that. They're not announcing, obviously, so far what has happened. I'm sure there will be an assessment of the damage, try and put out the flames there. See if it's completely gutted. It's a popular place in Malibu. The only castle in that area.

We like showing you these pictures because it shows the power of these flames, a few embers carried by those incredibly powerful winds can do this. Based on what we're hearing, the winds are about 60 to 70 miles per hour.

As we have been hearing, they do not show a sign of slowing down any time soon, which means those embers can go in all directions, which is why, if you're in that area you need to take very seriously, not just where the fire is, but if you're even within a few miles from it. Those winds can carry embers a matter of miles. So, listen to the authorities, keep listening to us. We'll make sure you find out about the areas that have evacuations.

LEVS: I also know, Fred, a lot of people concerned about loved ones at Pepperdine University. Obviously, there are officials there telling us on the air -- as you may have heard -- that they do not believe students are in danger.

But I do want to let you know the school is updating information on its website, front and center, on the Pepperdine website, you can find out what's going on there, right now. What's being done for students. They plan to keep making more announcements when the evacuations of the dormitories are over, we expect to hear about that from the school.

In the meantime, the students are staying there. Pepperdine was not affected directly by fire, but what did happen is kind of like what I'm telling you here about the embers. They had took some aerial views. The authorities went up in the skies, right, looked from these helicopters. They have aerial views of where the fire is. They can see there are some structures that could be in danger. Fred, that's why they did that.

We're at the Breaking News Desk, we will keep bringing you details throughout the afternoon -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks so much. Live images right now, Josh, of at least one helicopter in the air. This one doesn't have a bucket below, so this one may be really doing recon as opposed to trying to put out the blaze. Because oftentimes, when you see some of the helicopters that are part of the firefighting apparatus, we'll have bucket down below. And it could very well be that we just can't see it in that view. And then, since they're right there on the coast, they'll simply hover over the ocean there, pick up these buckets of water, take it to the fire location, and dump it.

It's painstaking, but it's very effective in a lot of ways. Part of the problem here, though, with this fire, is the wind gusts, as you mentioned, Josh, are so strong that it makes it pretty dangerous for these helicopters and other apparatus to carry out their firefighting techniques there.

We'll continue to watch the developments. This out of Malibu, California. Many structures already being engulfed, damaged, destroyed by the flames there. Flames that may find its routed source in a power line that was down.

And somehow sparked a blaze and would have been extremely dry conditions. Much more right from the Newsroom after this.


WHITFIELD: Look and listen. Pretty incredible fires being fuelled by that sound right there. Sixty to 80 mile-per-hour wind gusts. Santa Ana winds there, in Southern California, this is Malibu. This is one of what's turning out to be many structures being completely engulfed and destroyed by these damaging flames.

Our Hillary Andrews is in the Weather Center, keeping a close watch on the developments from your vantage point.

And Hillary, the winds are probably the root of the biggest problem here. That these winds are just fuelling these flames because they're sending these embers far and wide. That's how a lot of these little spot fires are popping up all over southern California now.

HILLARY ANDREWS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's incredible. I have been watching the video. And don't forget you're also dealing with the Santa Ana winds, which means they're dry. So, you have very low relative humidity. We're also dealing with a near record drought in Los Angeles.

Take a look at that smoke. It's not even going vertically. It's just going horizontally, which should explain, how strong those winds are. National Weather Service has issued wind warnings. We're talking from Ventura County to all the way down to L.A., Orange County, San Diego County. The criteria for a wind warning is going to be 40 mile per hour sustained winds. That's like sticking your hand out of a car going 40 miles an hour. Or 58 miles per hour wind gusts.

And the National Weather Service has determined that's the points where we start to see structure damage in homes. And we did have an I- Report at 10:30 Eastern Time this morning, just about three miles away from Malibu. And the gentleman says he had no power. We're looking at a lot of power lines down. That could cause a fire. We're also looking at such dry conditions out there that even the heat from the catalytic converter from your car can touch off grass fires.

Now, talking about the wind, I just picked out some random neighborhoods here. Frazier Park, 50 mile per hour wind gusts, Fort Hill, 44. And we're even looking at San Diego County, Temecula, seeing 40 mile per hour wind gusts. These will keep on going. These have been between 20 and 50 since I've been watching them since early this morning.

There problem was the change in the wind. We saw more of a northerly wind earlier this morning. Now, what we're seeing is more of an easterly wind. So when we switch that wind speed around, the wind direction around, we start hitting more of the Los Angeles canyon.

So the Santa Ana winds named for the Santa Ana Mountains; you see the wind literally filtering through the canyons, Los Angeles, Orange County Canyons, those are going to be more East/West oriented, where the past couple of days, we talked about Ventura County fires and also Santa Barbara County fires. And these have been very serious as well, about 500 acres burned.

And we've had the grapevine closed down, which is I-5; we've had even Lake Piru, actually a condor preserve, being threatened by these fires. Now we're seeing the critical fire danger right along the coastline, Malibu homes. It's just incredible out there. And it will continue through Tuesday.

WHITFIELD: Wow, that is not good news at all. Hillary Andrews, thank you so much.

So again, here is live pictures, right now, of these fires moving -- wow! Right through this hillside area. Look at that. That is extensive, huge. And those winds, you can see right there, demonstrated in the way that the wave, the shift of the plumes of the smoke, right there, are moving. You can see how those embers are just lifted and they travel up to a mile, is what Rick Dominguez, of the L.A. Country Fire told us moments ago.

He's back with us right now. So, Mr. Dominguez, one concern you were saying earlier is that while some of the shelter areas would be in the Zuma Beach area, we're hearing from other reports that some of those embers may have made their way to Zuma and you may have some fires there, too. Is that right?

INSPECT. RICK DOMINGUEZ, L.A. COUNTY FIRE: Well, I haven't confirmed that yet. That's the first I've heard, and I know Zuma is on the beach side, so I haven't heard anything confirming that.

WHITFIELD: What do you have at hand right now that you know for sure that you are trying to tackle?

DOMINGUEZ: Right now, I have, like we said, acreage is growing now. As you can see on some of the screens, for a while there it was down, but it looks like a lot of acreage. As you can see, the numerous structures beginning to go up, just like I heard you say a few seconds ago, a mile, two miles as far as an ember can fly. It's hard to predict, like we said earlier. Right now, we're trying to jump the gun if we can and if we can get to an area and get a drop on there.

WHITFIELD: That's the tricky part, because it's so in predictable, right? And you were telling me earlier about how these winds would like all of a sudden, suddenly shift. So, while you think you might move in the right direction to get a head of the winds, or these blazes, then make the U turn and then you have to shift all your resources again.

DOMINGUEZ: Yes, ma'am.

WHITFIELD: That must be frustrating.

DOMINGUEZ: Well, it is. Very frustrating, especially, to the firefighters on the fire line. But basically, we're still doing what we were doing earlier, but more intensely as we can. We still have more strike teams. We're trying to get them in place. Just trying to do our best to save these structures.

WHITFIELD: So tell me about your air assault. Earlier, you were telling me it was difficult for the choppers to get up in the air and the fire planes to get in the air because of these wind gusts, these big bursts of wind.

DOMINGUEZ: We continue. It's up to the discretion of the pilot. If he feels safe and so far, we have all of our eight copters up there and our two super scoopers, and they're up there. They are continuing to make drops, and trying to get a jump on the areas that aren't burning right now. It's up to the individual pilot to decide if he feels it's safe or not. As of right now, all of our aircraft are in the air continuously.

WHITFIELD: I have been focusing a lot about structures. Now let's talk about people. How about all of these folks who were supposed to evacuate. Are you finding most of them have, making your job a little easier?

DOMINGUEZ: Yes, ma'am.

WHITFIELD: Maybe to focus on the fire and not rescue?

DOMINGUEZ: Yes, Ma'am. Malibu is very familiar with fires, as you know. The citizens over there are we are grateful that they are cooperative. We feel for them because we -- a lot of them know, a lot of them are ready. They have their packets ready to go. And you know, the sheriff's, law enforcement usually handles our evacuation. So far, everyone has been very cooperative at this time. We're getting numerous calls up here at headquarters from people out of town or going into town; and we're asking that a lot of people, as you know the Lookie Lus like to get out there. So, we're discouraging that, also.

WHITFIELD: What do you tell the folks who happen to be out of town, who are now looking at their neighbors' homes and wondering -- wait a minute.


DOMINGUEZ: It's hard to predict from my vantage point, here, at the headquarters, but that lady called from Oregon, and I told her she had a neighbor she could contact. She said, oh, my God. Why didn't I think of that? It's hard for us to predict where her home is and everything.

WHITFIELD: Wow, Rick Dominguez with L.A. Country Fire, we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us again. We know you have a lot on your plate right now. We wish you all the best.

DOMINGUEZ: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Incredible scene here, in these quadrants.

DOMINGUEZ: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Thanks so much, Rick.

These quadrants here, where you're seeing variations of the kind of damage that is taking place. Homes, church, there on the lower left -- a church there in Malibu, which has gone up in flames. You're seeing the forested, very dry area there. And you're seeing in the lower right-hand side of your screen. You are seeing what these firefighters are up against when they're down there on the ground. The smoke so thick and the wind so unpredictable, and fierce, it's making for really miserable conditions for them.

And very dangerous, too, because these winds could shift in a second. Pretty unpredictable. You could think they're in front of the fire and all of a sudden, they're behind it, and visa versa. We're going to have much more on the fires taking place in Southern California, when we come right back.


WHITFIELD: Hello again, I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We're watching a mean and dangerous fire in Malibu, in Southern California, right there out of the L.A. area. Where already the fire department there of L.A. County is saying three homes, one church, and three businesses are total losses. Completely engulfed by flames.

It was a fire that started out as about 50 acres, and initial reports indicate it may have been the result of a power line going down. Because it's been so incredibly dry, it simply sparked a fire, and then being fuelled by the Santa Ana winds, kicking up wind gusts between 60 and 80 miles per hour. That are just sending these embers flying.

And so sporadically these homes have caught fire, businesses, and this church. Even cars that have been parked in various locations. We understand there to be no reports of injuries thus far, but look at these live pictures. You're seeing a very intense fire under way.

The L.A. County Fire has all kinds of apparatus on the ground and in the air. They have their choppers, eight choppers and what they call super scoopers, also, poised to try to douse some of these fires. But it is difficult because of these shifting winds, in part.

Vince Gonzales with CNN is there in Malibu. He knows first-hand just what these winds have meant, how difficult the conditions have been made as a result of Vince, what do you have? VINCE GONZALES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm sorry, Fredricka, I couldn't hear the last part of what you said because of the wind. Could you repeat that?

WHITFIELD: That's exactly part of the problem, the wind. How much the wind is actually hampering efforts?

GONZALES: You know, it's really been a big problem out here. We have seen in about the last half hour, as the smoke cloud has opened up, the winds have lessoned a bit. We seem to have been able to get some water-dropping helicopters up into these hills and canyons behind Pepperdine University, where the main body of the fire is, and down here in front of the university near the coast road, where those embers have started all of those spot fires that we saw earlier this morning.

They have been able to get in here and do a pretty good job of knocking them down. The problem, still, is now further south of here, the mouth of Malibu Creek Canyon. That's where they're worried about more embers coming out, the main body of the fire coming out.

The forecast was for these winds to lessen as the day went on. But so far, we really haven't seen that. We did get a few moments where it's like you can take your goggles off and wipe your eyes, but then the wind hits. And it is hit really hard, blowing over equipment, knocking people over.

These gusts have been clocked between 60 and 80 miles per hour, depending on who you talk to, near hurricane force, they're calling them. And they seem to have shifted direction just a little bit, which is also not a good thing. Now instead of straight West, at least where we are, they seem to be blowing a little bit more southwest. That's bad news for the main section of Malibu, where all of the stars live. the Malibu you think of when you think of Hollywood.

If the embers start blowing into that direction, even more, then there's going to be a lot of problems because there are a lot of very big, very expensive homes packed together in a small area, with just the cliffs and the coast and nothing else.

WHITFIELD: In fact, Vince, while we're talking we're going to pull up a map, too, even though we're seeing these live pictures right now, but mostly like brush, hillside area. It's difficult to see whether there are some structures. Maybe, possibly some structures there on the lower right hand.

But you look at this map, you see the concentration of this fire, which the Malibu Canyon Road area, that you spoke of. That's near Pepperdine, kind of east of Pepperdine, but north of the PCH, the Pacific Coast Highway, which is closed, by the way.

And as you mentioned, Vince, however, we're hearing -- and we actually saw some live pictures, too, of a couple homes right there on the beach, which have caught fire. We don't know for sure. It hasn't been confirmed whether the embers floated their way, from the concentrated fire area, to the Beach, but it doesn't sound like it's out of the realm of possibility given what you have seen, how the embers can be carried about a mile or two.

GONZALES: Right, and I have talked to veterans of covering fires out here who have said they have seen embers three inches, four inches, small burning pieces of wood. When you get Santa Ana winds like this, they pick them up and throw them for a mile or so. It's a very likely scenario the homes along the water got hit with the embers. That's what happened in the early '90s when the Malibu Fire hit. That fire, pushed by the winds drove all the way to the ocean, and really the fire crews did what they could, but it was the Pacific Ocean that stopped it.

It really wasn't any effort by firefighters. They did their best to save homes and lives, but eventually, they had to get out of the way. And they'll tell you that, when it gets dangerous, they're going to choose people over homes, and they are just going to have to get their people out, and do what they can to save whatever is on the edge of the body.

Right now, what we're seeing though, is some clearing. There's a little bit of lessening of winds from time to time. Still some concerns south of here. Definitely now, there are so many fire trucks and crews racing back and forth, if a spot fire starts, as soon as we see the smoke, we hear a siren, or we hear a helicopter, and they're on it right away.

WHITFIELD: We know it's dangerous for them. And dangerous for you, too. Good to see you have your fire jacket on there. Vince Gonzales, we're going to check back with you, in a moment. We're going to take a short break for now.