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CNN NEWSROOM

Southern California Fires; Space Shuttle Discovery

Aired October 23, 2007 - 10:59   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: You're with CNN.
I'm Heidi Collins. Tony Harris is off today.

Developments keep coming in to the CNN NEWSROOM on this Tuesday, October 23rd.

Here's what's on the rundown.

Catastrophe in California. More than a dozen wildfires burning with no relief in sight.

We have reporters covering the fires from San Diego, north to Los Angeles. Hundreds of homes destroyed in just one county. And this hour, what you can do before a fire hits to be sure the insurance company pays your claim.

And seeking shelter from the firestorm, we'll hear how the Red Cross is helping evacuees, right here in the NEWSROOM.

The fires have scorched more than 400 square miles. CNN crews are fanned out all across the area. We want to go straight to CNN's Dan Simon, standing by north of San Diego -- Dan.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Heidi, we're in a neighborhood called Rancho Bernardo, and obviously you have daylight now. And as you drive around the streets, it's simply unbelievable to see the things that you are seeing.

Everywhere you look you're seeing homes burned down to the ground, and because people here have been evacuated, they have no idea if in fact they have a home. The person, for example, who lives in this house, the family who lives here, they probably have no idea that they have lost everything.

We are seeing some intense winds come this morning. We thought that we may get a little bit of a break because it was calm when we got here this morning, but the winds have really picked up.

We are told by one firefighter that until the winds calm down, this fire is just going to keep pushing west. And if it just keeps pushing west, it's just going to run into the ocean. And you have 5,000 more homes that are threatened.

We talked to one firefighter who says you are dealing with an unprecedented event.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON: Give us a sense in terms of the kinds of things that you're seeing as you drive around.

BRUCE CARTELLI, SAN DIEGO FIRE DEPT.: Well, utter devastation, hundreds of homes that have been lost, many hundred more that have been damaged. And it's probably the worst significant event in my career of 36 years that I have ever experienced in my fire service career.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON: Well, Governor Schwarzenegger has asked for more resources. Hopefully that will help firefighters continue to battle this blaze, but until the winds die down it's going to be awfully tough to contain this wildfire. We do know that some C-130 cargo tankers are going to be dropping fire retardant. Hopefully that will help put out some of these flames, but it is just so tough as long as the winds continue -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Yes, boy, understandably so. The winds only part of the problems we have been hearing with the temperatures and the dryness and all of it. They've been calling it the perfect storm, and it's certainly not a good combination.

We want to get now to San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. This morning, thousands of the evacuees are waking up there and hundreds of thousands are scattered around the region.

CNN's Thelma Gutierrez is at the stadium now to show us a little bit more about what is happening there.

About how many people do you think there are, Thelma?

THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, officially we're told that there are 6,500 people who've actually registered to be inside the stadium. But if you take a look right behind me, you can see that it really is filling up.

In the last few hours that we've been here we've noticed it's just wall-to-wall people now. And what you're looking at is a line of folks who are standing in line waiting to be served breakfast.

This area has been staffed by hundreds of volunteers, and they are manning the intake areas, registering people. They're also at the food lines, and, in fact, just a few minutes ago, one of the volunteer coordinators came out and she said on the loud speaker, you know, that she was calling for volunteers and trying to get them organized because they are expecting an onslaught of people today.

And one thing that's been very interesting is to hear from some of the volunteers. There was a bartender who was sitting around watching television and he said, "I can't do this any longer. I have to go to Qualcomm. I need to help some of the folks here."

And in addition to that, there was a mother of three who had to evacuate. She told me a few minutes ago that she was also going to volunteer to help people less fortunate than herself.

Now, we came earlier this morning. There were volunteers from the Marines who had shown up with a pickup truck full of diapers and baby formula. And they said that they wanted to help their fellow Americans.

I walked inside the stadium. In the corridors right by the concession areas we saw people set up tents, they were sleeping in cots. Many were glued to their television sets up there watching to see what is happening to their homes.

And joining me now is Johnny Villanueva, his wife Elizabeth and their three daughters.

Now, Johnny, you were telling me that you've been here at Qualcomm many times for Charger games. You're an avid Charger fan. But this is completely different for you.

JOHNNY VILLANUEVA, SPRING VALLEY EVACUEE: Yes, it's totally different. There's not a lot of people smiling. It's just not usual. You know?

GUTIERREZ: Well, what has it been like? Where did you sleep here last night?

VILLANUEVA: We got here pretty late and we slept in our vehicles. We just walked in here right now. So...

GUTIERREZ: You were sleeping out in the parking lot?

VILLANUEVA: Yes. Yes.

GUTIERREZ: Yes.

And Elizabeth, you said that it was terrifying when you actually saw the wall of flames near your home. And you're from Spring Valley.

ELIZABETH VILLANUEVA, SPRING VALLEY EVACUEE: Yes.

GUTIERREZ: Tell me what you saw.

E. VILLANUEVA: I saw the mountain on fire, and you say, oh my God, we've got my family, because there's danger. And say let's go. And we stay here right now.

GUTIERREZ: And so you came directly to Qualcomm?

E. VILLANUEVA: Yes.

GUTIERREZ: Now your daughter, Ana (ph), you said that you grabbed a few things, you wanted to be able to evacuate with some of your prized possessions. What did you bring?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I brought my pictures and my albums and my dog. GUTIERREZ: This is the first time you've been in a situation like this, I imagine. You're only 11 years old. How terrifying was it for you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was kind of -- it was a whole new -- a different thing to do, so...

GUTIERREZ: How do you feel about being here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Safer.

GUTIERREZ: Yes. All right.

Well, thank you to your family, and the best of luck to you. I know that you say you are not sure what has happened to your home.

J. VILLANUEVA: We are not sure, but I don't think -- I think it's safe. We're going to go and find out. You know, listen to the news and see what happens.

GUTIERREZ: OK. All right.

Thank you very much. Good luck to you.

And that's the kind of thing that we've been seeing all morning here, Heidi. We've been talking to folks who say they don't really know what is going on with their homes, very anxious to get back in to check.

I might also add that the schools within the San Diego Unified School District are closed right now, and so there are many children here who are not going to school. And volunteers -- the volunteer coordinator was actually asking for teachers to volunteer to come into Qualcomm and to help with some of the children so that they don't miss out on too many of their lessons -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Boy oh boy, what a situation. All right.

CNN's Thelma Gutierrez for us at Qualcomm Stadium, where there are several people, as you heard. About 6,500 have been registered to be shelter guests, if you will, at this point. I'm sure there are quite a few more there that we just don't have the numbers on quite yet.

Want to go ahead and move up coast now. Vince Gonzales is in northern Los Angeles County with more on the situation there.

Vince, I know you have been covering the Magic Fire. Tell us the latest.

VINCE GONZALES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we just actually saw two fixed-wing aircraft hit the fire with water trying to get a handle on it where it's coming down out of the hills here. And I've got hopefully some new information.

Here with me is Ventura County Fire public information officer Captain Barry Parker.

Can you tell us -- the Ranch Fire, which -- we were saying it's -- we were saying it was 35,000 acres earlier. It has grown?

CAPT. BARRY PARKER, VENTURA COUNTY FIRE DEPT.: It has, indeed. It's up to about 54,000 acres now. Obviously concerning for firefighters.

One of the good things right now is the wind has subsided somewhat for the moment. So any time we get a moment like this, we take advantage of it. There are evacuations in place for the town of (INAUDIBLE) and Fillmore.

GONZALES: Any of those mandatory, or right now just warning people to be ready to get out?

PARKER: We do have what we refer to as precautionary and recommended. That is similar to mandatory, where we tell people you need to leave now. We want people out of the area, allowing for fire equipment and personnel to get in there and be able to get in there and do structure protection.

GONZALES: And with all these fires burning up and down the California coast, do you have enough people to face three fires just in this one area alone?

PARKER: Actually, we truly don't. We are using a limited amount of resources to go in and fight these fires.

Typically on this fire -- we have got about 600 people on the Ranch Fire. We normally would have about 1,500. So we have to be absolutely surgical in how we plan and how we tactically use our fire equipment because we just simply don't have enough fire engines in the state of California right now to battle these blazes.

GONZALES: And you say there's been some lull in the winds. Any idea of the forecast? Any hope for firefighters as the day goes on here?

PARKER: Well, there's two things happening. The winds are supposed to subside somewhat today, although temperatures are higher. So it's really kind of a mixed blessing.

We're going to have to see how the day shapes out. But obviously any time we have a chance to be aggressive and move from that defensive structure mode into an offensive mode, that's what we do.

GONZALES: And we have three fires burning here in northern Los Angeles County. The fear last night was they could merge and become a catastrophic wildfire, a very large size. It would be very hard to deal with.

What's the thought on that today? Still a fear?

PARKER: It is. Any time you have three fires and the chance of three fires becoming one, that's one very large fire that firefighters will have to deal with. So we want to keep these fires as small as we can. The only good thing is that we would be able to share even more resources, but we would rather keep these fires individually fought.

GONZALES: Thank you very much, Captain.

And Heidi, just to update you on the Malibu fire, that went up to about 3,800 acres overnight and they seem to have lost a little bit of containment on it. Yesterday they said it was 10 percent contained. Now they are saying 8 percent, but they're also hoping for the winds to subside up there and give them a break today, as well -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Vince, I think it's pretty tough for people to understand the geography here if they are not familiar with it. You were talking about the ranch fire which has grown a bit, as we just learned from the man you were speaking with, to 54,000. And you mentioned in particular the three fires that we're very concerned about possibly merging together for this potentially catastrophic super fire, if you will.

Remind us again what those three fires are, Vince.

GONZALES: There's the Magic Fire, which is the one we're near, which is near Magic Mountain, actually, the amusement park. And there's the Buckweed Fire. That was the biggest one, at least until we heard this new information about the Ranch Fire.

They were many homes destroyed in the Buckweed Fire. They're all in very close proximity. A lot of open land between them. And they were saying though that if these winds really kicked up again, like the winds we had on Sunday, those near-hurricane-force gusts, they could merge together and become that big wildfire they are worried about.

COLLINS: Wow. Boy, we certainly hope that doesn't happen.

All right. Thanks so much.

Vince Gonzales, he's in northern Los Angeles County for us this morning.

Vince, thank you.

We want to go ahead and take a look at the latest numbers now on these fires.

States of emergency have been declared in seven California counties. More than 400 square miles have burned.

More than 300,000 people have left their homes, and many unfortunately will have nothing to return to. More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed. And that's just in San Diego County alone.

One person has been killed. Almost three dozen injured now.

More than 5,600 firefighters are battling the flames, but as you just heard and you've heard a couple of times before, as Jacqui Jeras joins us, just not enough fire crews out there. They are asking for more. They're asking for donations. They're telling people to stay off their cell phones, to stay at home and off the freeways.

Jacqui, it's just -- it's unbelievable.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It is. And those winds are so aggressive. You know, you just can't keep up with those fire lines.

And the winds also blow those embers out ahead of the fire and start new spot fires. So sometimes you don't even see those, and they can get out of control before you're even aware that a new one has started.

So the wind will be extreme again today. And we just heard from Vince there, you know, potential hope with a little bit of a calming in the wind right now. But we really see nothing, at least not for the next six-plus hours or so, to calm these winds or bring any kind of break.

Now, we do think maybe late today and into tonight the winds will start to subside a little and tomorrow will be less windy, but we won't see a significant break, I don't think, until Thursday and Friday. Then by the weekend we'll get a reversal on the winds.

Right now, they're coming in, as we call, offshore. That means they move towards the ocean. We are expecting them to become onshore by the weekend, and, of course, that brings in all that moisture, which brings in humidity and helps to improve the situation. So in the meantime, we have been seeing already some incredible wind gusts already as of this morning, where the winds have been beyond hurricane force.

And I also want to take a quick second and talk about the air quality. Now, stick with me here because it might look a little confusing.

We just got this in from the EPA and the AIRNow program. And all of the dots that you see here are air quality.

This graphic is from Saturday. This one is from Sunday. And this one is from yesterday.

So you can see green is good. Yellow is moderate. Orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups. So it wasn't great across the area here on Saturday.

Look at Sunday. Those winds picked up. The satellite image showing you the smoke and the dust in this area, and also notice the brown dots right up here. That's near the Lake Arrowhead fire area.

Brown means unhealthy. It is hazardous for everybody. Yesterday's map down here showing you all kinds of red all across the region.

You don't want to go outside if you don't have to today. Stay inside. Run your air-conditioner. Make sure you close all the vents so you recycle all the inside air and don't intake the outside air.

And also, Heidi, people who have asthma problems and allergy problems, keep in mind that this kicks up dust and pollen, so that makes things worse. And also, health officials advise that you don't do things like trying to dust or run the vacuum cleaner, because that just kind of kicks everything back up into the air.

We think this will a real problem with air quality today, too.

COLLINS: Yes. Boy, no question about that. It just hurts to breathe, I'm sure.

All right. Jacqui Jeras, thanks so much.

And watch continuing coverage of the wildfires ravaging California all day on CNN. When you're not in front of the television you can still check out our online network, CNN.com live. Just log on to CNN.com/video for live feeds from the fire scene.

And this is an ever-changing situation, obviously, today. We want to go ahead and speak with someone who is pretty much in the thick of it.

Ebony Bird is standing by now. She's evacuated her home. It's in Fallbrook, which is near San Diego. She got out yesterday with her family.

Ebony, tell us what the situation is for you.

EBONY BIRD, EVACUEE: You know, it's actually really scary here. I've lived in California all my life and I've never ever seen anything like this.

COLLINS: How so? What are you seeing?

BIRD: It's actually a really dark, smoky overcast outside right now. There's ashes all over the ground on the car. People are walking around with surgical masks over their faces. It's unbelievable.

COLLINS: So were you -- were you told to get out of your house, or did you and your family -- I know you have a little baby, 3 months old. You, your husband and your baby are at a hotel now. Did you do that on your own or were you forced?

BIRD: Well, we did it on our own, but as soon as we got in at the hotel and settled, we found out that our area was being mandatory evacuated. So we got out right in time.

And I think we did a very good time, too, because we were going around looking for hotels and everybody was full. There were no vacancies anywhere. We got lucky with the hotel that we did find.

COLLINS: Boy, I bet you did. We've been reporting that all morning long, that absolutely every one of the hotels is just jam- packed. Understandably so. Have you had a chance to talk with anybody at the hotel that you're staying with? How are people doing?

BIRD: You know, I did talk to this one fellow this morning. And he's all right. I don't think he's really concerned about his home. But, you know, he had to evacuate from a different city where I live.

But he's doing fine. He's just, you know, just shock and awe, like everybody else out here.

COLLINS: Yes. Unfortunately, you know this has happened before, obviously. Several times in California. But I imagine you just never get used to it.

Any idea what you'll do next?

BIRD: None whatsoever. Right now we're just trying to wait to see if it's safe to go home. You know, we don't want to leave just in case it's not because we don't want to get stuck anywhere else. So...

COLLINS: Yes, it's got to be tough with a little infant, as well. We certainly wish you the best of luck. And we'll check back with you to see how the situation sort of develops here as we continue to watch these incredible pictures coming in.

Ebony Bird, thanks so much for spending some time with us here today. And again, we wish you the best of luck.

In fact, we want to put this out now. If you would like to help victims of the wildfire ravaging southern California, you can do that through our Impact Your World initiative. All you have to do is go to CNN.com/impact and you can take action right now.

Calling in the Marines. Well, hundreds of troops could be sent to the fire lines in southern California. We'll have more details on that coming up in just a moment.

Homes up in flames. What homeowners need to know about their insurance coverage. Our Gerri Willis is live with very important insurance information in face of this and the flames in southern California.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: We are learning about in Florida now, apparently, according to our affiliate there in Ft. Myers, we are looking at the aftermath of a plane crash. This is a small plane that's gone down in a parking lot of a mall.

We are understanding that there are apparently no injuries at this time. But unbelievable video as we look at that new video coming into us here at CNN.

We'll let you know should we learn any more about how this may have happened or if in fact anyone was hurt. But you can see how that plane has crashed into two vehicles there. Again coming in from our affiliate WBBH, Fort Myers, Florida. Looks to be some sort of vintage aircraft, a private plane there.

We again will be continuing to follow this one and get you some more information. Fort Myers, Florida.

All right. We want to get back to another story that we have been watching this morning. A bit of a bright spot in a day like today.

The space shuttle Discovery is set for launch. At least so far, so good. A new mission to the International Space Station is just less than 30 minutes away. And CNN's space correspondent, Miles O'Brien is at the Kennedy Space Center now with a little look ahead coming to us live in HD.

Hey there, Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Heidi, the chances are looking pretty good that CNN viewers will get their first view of a space shuttle launch in HD in just a few minutes' time. We just heard from Mission Control -- launch control, actually -- not far from where I sit here at the Kennedy Space Center that an area where ice had built up on the space shuttle's external fuel tank, actually some of the plumbing connecting the fuel tank to the orbiter itself, has dissipated and is no longer a concern, and it is now clear for launch.

The only thing that is outstanding now is the weather. Right on the edge for that right now, and it looks very likely we're good to go right now. But there's a concern about what happens in the forecast.

Take a look at this picture, the ice we're talking about. This comes from the independent Web site nasaspaceflight.com.

It shows a piece of ice four inches by 1.5 inches. About three- quarters inch thick. Clear ice, which tends to form at this time of year because liquid hydrogen which is in that pipe is so cold.

Here's a perfect example of what we're talking about.

This is a water bottle we have here. Look at all the condensation that has developed on the outside of this bottle here in the humidity in Florida. Well, imagine if this were below freezing -- minus 400 degrees is what hydrogen is. That would quickly turn to ice, and that's the problem. But apparently that has been cleared.

Joining me now to talk a little bit about this and the mission that lies ahead is Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle.

The second woman to command a shuttle, Pam Melroy, a good friend of yours, is in the left seat of Discovery today. That's a big milestone.

Before we talk about that, let's run through the issues on the ice and the weather. Things appear to be on the optimistic side.

EILEEN COLLINS, ASTRONAUT: They sure do. In fact, the mission management team has just pulled their members and it looks like everybody is go for launch. Technically things are looking good.

O'BRIEN: But just to explain to people, if you have ice down here and a pipe that's way down there, why would that be a big concern for the possibility of it hitting a tile or causing some problems with the heat shield?

COLLINS: Well, you know, on the shuttle we're always concerned about ice that could fall off. At the speed that the shuttle flies, any ice that departs or ricochets could cause damage to our tiles or the wing leading edges, which we have seen as the shuttle accelerates through the atmosphere. If a piece breaks off, the shuttle will actually accelerate into that piece.

At the accelerations and the speeds that we're going at, that can do some major damage. So we have launch commit criteria that will tell us in what place, how much ice is acceptable.

Normally it's no ice if it's up here near the top. But some ice is acceptable at the bottom.

O'BRIEN: And as it turns out, even if this hadn't dissipated or melted, or whatever happened, they would have been OK to launch with that ice on that pipe, as it turns out.

COLLINS: Well, that's what they are saying right now. A piece that size in that particular location would have been OK to fly with.

O'BRIEN: All right. So now -- as a matter of fact, they're going through the poll right now. Let's listen for a minute if we can.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CDR.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: CDR is go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Launch director.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Launch director.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our launch team is ready to proceed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.

Count it up, Steve.

Chief processing engineer, verify no constraints for launch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Charlie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Launch manager.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mike, on behalf of our partners at the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, your NASA (INAUDIBLE) is go for launch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good. Thank you.

Range Rover.

O'BRIEN: That's NASA test director Mike Leinbach going through his team, asking each and every consul, each and every specialty, each and every screen that's associated with a system on the space shuttle and the system which supports it. We're talking -- now I believe he's asking if the range is ready, which is the launch range here, the area where they launch. They want to make sure it's clear of things like civilian air traffic, boats which might come into the no-travel zone, I guess, no-fly zone for airplanes.

And we're waiting for a response from them. But up to this point it's all been go, Eileen.

Let's just talk briefly. This is a two-week mission. A very complicated mission to the International Space Station.

COLLINS: This is the toughest mission I have seen yet. Five spacewalks during a nine-day dock time frame. The crew is exchanging one of our space station crew members. Daniel Tani is going up to replace Clay Anderson, and there's a lot of logistics that will be transferred.

O'BRIEN: All right.

So as it stands right now, I think they have gotten goes from everybody. Have they?

The poll is done. So it looks -- it looks like, Heidi, we're going to thread this needle today. The weather, the ice and everything has come into perfect confluence. 11:38 Eastern Time is when we expect to see this launch. The first high definition launch on CNN.

COLLINS: All right. Well, hey, it's about time.

This is, as you said earlier, the 120th launch that we have covered here at CNN. And today we will be making history watching the space shuttle launch of Discovery on its 34th mission in high def.

We're going to bring it to you. It's scheduled for 11:38, and things are looking really good right now.

So if in fact you cannot catch Discovery's launch right here on CNN, there is another way to see it. On your computer, just go to CNN.com/video and you can see it live as it happens.

We of course will get back to CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien there at Kennedy Space Center just as soon as that happens.

Meanwhile, want to get back to this story, those flames that are racing across southern California and the fire crews who are trying desperately to save people's homes. For hundreds of families though that effort is just too late.

Live pictures now. We'll take a break and be back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: With so many homes in the path of these wildfires that we've been talking about all morning, it could certainly add up to a big bill for insurance companies.

CNN's personal finance editor Gerri Willis is joining us now from New York.

Gerri, this really, obviously, isn't the first time insurance companies have had to go to California and make big, big payoffs.

GERRI WILLIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. You know, California leads the nation, Heidi, in wildfires. The biggest occurred back in 1991 when wildfires in Oakland caused damage amounting to $2.5 billion in today's dollars. More recently, back in 2003 insurers paid out about $2 billion in claims resulting from wildfires in San Diego and San Bernardino Counties. And for some homeowners, unfortunate enough to lose their homes in the latest wildfires, it's sadly not the first time they have gone through this.

You know, and the insurers themselves are noticing these trends. In July, just three months ago, Allstate stopped issuing new policies to homeowners in the state, claiming it was trying to limit its exposure to catastrophe -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Wow. That's very frightening, if you're a homeowner in the area. How can you make sure that you're going to get paid?

WILLIS: Well, there's some important information you need if you're in this situation or you know someone who is. The good news is that fires, unlike hurricanes, is covered under a standard homeowner policy.

But the devil here is in the details. First, take a look at the first page of your homeowners policy. It should show you how much coverage you have. You'll be in far better shape if your policy is a replacement-value policy, rather than a cash-value policy. That's because you will have the money to rebuild in today's prices rather than what you bought it at in the first place.

Now the key to getting the most money is having a complete inventory of your belongings. California's Insurance Department has an inventory guide at its Web site at insurance.ca.gov. It walks you through all the items that you need to remember, and you shouldn't forget, down to ceiling fans, space heaters. And remember, taking pictures, video, anything used to prove your claim is a good idea.

Now, when it comes to filing your claim act as quickly as possible to contact your agent. Remember, there'll be thousands of homeowners attempting to do the same thing. Get at the front of the line. And don't forget to ask about living expenses to cover your out-of-pocket costs -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Great information, especially on a day like this when there are so many worries for these homeowners out there.

WILLIS: It's sad stuff.

COLLINS: Yes. All right, CNN's personal finance editor Gerri Willis. Gerri, nice to see you. Thanks.

WILLIS: My pleasure.

COLLINS: The Space Shuttle Discovery ready to start a new mission in morning. We are watching the countdown, right now looking pretty good.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: The Space Shuttle Discovery set for launch. In fact it is almost go time, if you will. Live pictures there. CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien is standing by live at Kennedy Space Center there in high definition.

Boy this is going to be quite the event there, Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CHIEF TECHNOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENT CORRESPONDENT: Heidi, our first high-definition launch on CNN. Looks like it's going like clockwork. Inside three minutes now to launch.

Joining me now to walk us through this is somebody who has been through the experience many times, four times, to be exact. Twice as a commander. Eileen Collins, the only other woman to be a commander. Pam Melroy, the second woman to be a commander, is commanding the mission. What are the astronauts doing right now?

EILEEN COLLINS, FMR. SHUTTLE COMMANDER: Well, they're very focused on the launch countdown. Everything at this point on in is primarily automatic, inside of two minutes. So they're going to be watching the main engines start. They're going to be watching the commands go out as you get close to booster separation, and of course as the shuttle is flying, Pam will be watching the direction and performance of the shuttle, while Zambo (ph), the pilot, is going to be watching the systems, and they're ready to intervene if anything goes wrong.

O'BRIEN: And they've shut their visors. You can see there, at the top, the so-called beanie cap, the gaseous oxygen vent hood is being removed right now. That takes very cold oxygen gas away from the tank and reduces the amount of ice that builds up in this.

With one minute to go, this is a very important mission to deliver an important piece to the International Space Station, isn't it?

E. COLLINS: That's right. The No 2 (ph), which is the connecting device from the pieces of the Destiny Lab that's up there right now, will be connected to, soon to come, the European Columbus module, which will be their science laboratory. And then the Japanese Kibo (ph) module will be up there hopefully in the springtime.

O'BRIEN: Have you ever seen a more complicated space shuttle mission? This is incredibly challenging.

E. COLLINS: This is a very, very challenging mission. The astronauts make it look easy. The ground team makes it looks easy, but, frankly, they're working very hard and they're very, very well- trained. And they're also trained for things that could go wrong.

And as we continue the countdown right now, he asked me what Pam and the crew are thinking about. They're ready for the normal launch, which is what they hope is going to happen, but they have to be ready for anything that might go wrong. And there are millions of things, as you know, that could go wrong. So they're trained and they're ready for that.

O'BRIEN: All right. We're inside a minute now. We've gotten through weather issues today. A little bit of an ice build-up on the external fuel tank. Both of the issues have been cleared by the launch control team and mission control, the mission-management team.

As we approach 40 seconds to launch, let's listen to NASA. Mike Curry (ph) is the public affairs officer here at the Kennedy Space Center. In a little while you'll hear Kylie Clem (ph), who will be offering some commentary from Houston.

Let's listen for a moment in the final stages of the countdown of Space Shuttle Discovery.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Discovery's onboard computers have primary control of all the vehicle's critical functions. T-minus 20 seconds. T-minus 16 seconds. Sound-suppression water system has been activated, protecting discovery and the launchpad from acoustical energy. We have a go for main engine start. T-minus five, four, three, two, one, booster ignition, and liftoff of Discovery, hoisting Harmony to the heavens and opening new gateways for international science. discovery has cleared the tower.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Houston now controlling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger roll discovery.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Discovery's roll maneuver is complete and is now a head's down position on track for its flight to the International Space Station.

Discovery seven miles downrange and an altitude of two statute miles. Going at 600 miles per hour, Discovery engines are throttling down as the bitter passes through the area of maximum pressure on the vehicle. Now 50 seconds into the flight.

O'BRIEN: About this area of maximum pressure, what do they mean by that?

E. COLLINS: It's the highest stresses that the vehicle will go through as far as speed and air pressure combined.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Discovery Houston.

O'BRIEN: This is the famous call which all hearkens back to Challenger. After they get through the period of time, they actually hit the gas again, don't they?

E. COLLINS: Yes, the go with throttle (INAUDIBLE) just is really a com check to let them know they are able to talk to each other fine. They're coming out of the area of max pressure. You can see the boosters are burning very, very smoothly. They're going to burn for two minutes. We have cameras on those boosters, so when they separate you're going to see a great view of the boosters falling away, but they're really there to look for ice and debris that may fall off the tank.

O'BRIEN: What are the astronauts feeling right now? Is there a tremendous amount of pressure on this...

E. COLLINS: They're feeling a very high acceleration right now, about two-and-a-half Gs. For example, if you weighed 100 pounds on Earth, you'd weigh 250 pounds right now. You'd be in pushed back into your seat, there's a lot of shaking going on. If you tried to write something, you wouldn't be able to because your hand is moving so much.

But again, they're focused on their instruments, their focused on the systems. Are the engines running right? Are the ATU (ph) hydraulic's electrical systems -- and it looks like everything is going fine. Here's the boosters falling away.

O'BRIEN: Right, solid rocket booster separation, that's a very important milestone.

E. COLLINS: Well, we're good to see those boosters off. As you know, the crew cannot control those. We can't throttle them or shut them off. They're ballistic, basically.

O'BRIEN: Like a Roman candle (ph), essentially, right?

E. COLLINS: They're an open loop (ph) ballistic system, and when they're gone, you're just glad they're gone, because now, you have your main engines, which can be shut down or throttled if you see there's a problem.

O'BRIEN: Now, as it gains altitude and speed, you have increased options if something goes wrong. Walk us through the scenarios. If something happened very early after launch, they conceivably could come back here on an abort mission ...

E. COLLINS: Right.

O'BRIEN: ...but there are other scenarios, as well.

E. COLLINS: Well, the crew is -- the booster's just separated, 150,000 feet, and the next big key word that they're looking for is the two engine TAL -- here -- OK, two engine Marone (ph), which means that they lose one engine and they have two good engines left, they can abort across the ocean and land in Spain.

O'BRIEN: Marone, Spain, in other words.

E. COLLINS: Yes.

O'BRIEN: So, they're telling the crew if you lose an engine, you go to Spain now. And that's ...

E. COLLINS: That's right.

O'BRIEN: ...a big deal right there because you don't want to have to come back here.

E. COLLINS: Well, it is a big deal. But fortunately, there's a crew over there, there's landing aids, it's a safe thing that can be done. So, we've never had to do it, but we plan for it. And it's good to know that you have that option.

The next thing coming up will be negative return, which means at that point in time, if you lose one engine, you have so much forward velocity that you can't turn around and come back and land in Florida.

O'BRIEN: So, it takes -- completely takes away the return to launch site scenario.

E. COLLINS: Right, right. There's an overlap there where you can ...

O'BRIEN: Yes.

E. COLLINS: ...land in Spain or come back here ...

O'BRIEN: Right.

E. COLLINS: ...but we'll lose that overlap soon. What happens now if you start picking up east coast landing sites, you can land up the east coast in the northern states or even in Canada. And then, we also pick up Shannon in Ireland, as well as a site in Portugal.

O'BRIEN: So, there's any number of options to the crew. And that's what you're doing right there. You're going through your mind, here's what I would do if, right?

E. COLLINS: Right, and by the way, the crew is in a much nicer environment right now because all that shaking is gone. And I like to tell people it's like going from driving a Volkswagen down a rocky road to being in a nice smooth car driving along at 100 miles an hour. It's just very, very smooth.

The crew is now able to write if they want. They can easily move switches. Really, it's kind of a little breath of fresh air. They're under very low G acceleration right now.

Eventually, they're going to build up to two Gs, two-and-a-half, three Gs. And you'll be back in the situation where, like, if you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, you'll weigh 300 pounds during this high acceleration. To reach for switches is hard. If you drop something, forget it, it's going to be gone. You're not going to be able to retrieve it.

And we train to work under those scenarios. You've got to be able to do your job, move switches, make radio calls, run checklists in this very strange environment that you never were really able to experience on earth, that environment, or the high acceleration.

O'BRIEN: How many simulators -- as you go in, you can't simulate that very well, can you?

E. COLLINS: You can't -- you cannot simulate the G level in our simulators. You have to go into a centrifuge to do that.

O'BRIEN: Yes, so at this juncture, they're -- it's eight minutes, eight and a half minutes of powered flight. And we're -- how far into it right now?

E. COLLINS: OK, we just went over five minutes. We're coming up to the press to ATO call, which'll be press two, a point in time which is abort to orbit. Meaning if the crew lost an engine, they wouldn't have to go in and land in Spain, they could go all the way up to orbit and continue a safe mission.

O'BRIEN: And at this point, what point do you breathe easy, if ever, during this whole process?

E. COLLINS: I don't know if I ever breathe easy ...

O'BRIEN: Yes.

E. COLLINS: ...even after a main engine cutoff, there's a lot of important things that have to happen. OK, there's the select -- there's the ...

O'BRIEN: OK, so the press to ATO, what does that mean?

E. COLLINS: OK, press to -- OK, single engine op three. Now, what happens here is if they lose two engines, the single engine op three call says they can go over to, in this case, the landing site in Europe, which is in Spain.

They're accelerating so fast right now that every second -- here's the roll to heads up if you're watching the shuttle. It's at about 9,000 feet. I'm sorry, about 9,000 miles per hour and it's over 200,000 feet. And the reason we roll to heads up is to allow the crew to communicate with the satellites in orbit versus the ...

O'BRIEN: So, you go from talking to the ground to talking to satellites?

E. COLLINS: That's right.

O'BRIEN: What a view that is. E. COLLINS: OK.

O'BRIEN: And I know this view does not do it justice. Can you try to describe it for us?

E. COLLINS: Well, you're going so fast. I don't know how to say it other than you're hauling. And if you look down at the earth, the earth is -- you're actually at a relatively low altitude here. And the earth is just -- it's going below you so fast that I got to tell you, you're not supposed to be looking out the window. The commander and the pilot are supposed to be looking at their instruments, and again, you're -- you want to be ready.

O'BRIEN: But you snuck a peek, right?

E. COLLINS: Well, you got to sneak -- you're going to sneak a peek because it's part of the experience. But it's really important for the crew to be, again, watching all those critical systems because if something goes wrong, you may have just less than a -- really, less than a second to make the right decision.

O'BRIEN: So at that point, you get to the point where you take the straps off. You go from three Gs to zero. What is that experience like?

E. COLLINS: OK, well, we're -- that's going to happen about one minute from now. We got about one minute to main engine cutoff. Things don't go flying forward. You would think when the main engines cutoff, you decelerate, you don't. You go immediately from three Gs to zero Gs.

O'BRIEN: And is that a difficult experience for the astronauts to get used to?

E. COLLINS: Actually, it's quite an exhilarating experience. When you go from three Gs to zero Gs, first of all, you know you've made it. You're in space. I know there's a lot of critical things that still have to happen in the main propulsion system. The tank has to separate, valves have to close.

But right now, they're going through that three G acceleration. And, it's hard, frankly, it's hard to breathe. And you have to kind of get your breathing under -- here go, OK, well, they're throttling back to keep from going over three Gs to keep the stress low on the shuttle.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

E. COLLINS: The shuttle is really certified up to just slightly above three Gs. So, if the throttles don't come back on their own, the pilot's prepared to do the throttleback himself. The throttles will come all the way to the minimum power setting, briefly, and then the engines will shut off, and things will go immediately quiet.

About 10 seconds will go by, and then external tank will separate. You hear a loud pop, it's like a Howitzer gun, it's just -- and you go, OK, I know I'm safely away from the tank. And then the shuttle jets will fire and fly you up and away. And you're going to see this on the feed that we have here. OK, notice that -- what you've got main engine cutoff in the back.

O'BRIEN: Yes, yes.

E. COLLINS: It looks like a little shock wave.

O'BRIEN: Kind of a little plume there. So, how long before the tank goes?

E. COLLINS: OK, OK, notice there's a little pitch down. And I think it'll vary, but I think it's about -- it's between 10 and 18 seconds after main engine cutoff that the tank will separate. Now, notice there's some debris coming off the tank. That's normal, nothing to worry about.

O'BRIEN: And there's ...

E. COLLINS: The shuttle is separating.

O'BRIEN: There goes "Discovery."

E. COLLINS: And you'll see the shuttle jets fire.

O'BRIEN: And that debris you see there is of no consequence?

E. COLLINS: Yes, that's normal, you're going to have things fall off the tank once you -- of course, the shuttle is out of the atmosphere, so it can't ...

O'BRIEN: Yes, and of course, who right now is taking pictures of that tank. That's part of the post-Columbia routine to see if there was any sort of foam or debris which came off. That'll be analyzed later.

E. COLLINS: That's very important. The camera in the back of the shuttle that automatically photographs the tank, then Pam will fly -- she will flip the shuttle around and the crew members will videotape and take some digital photographs of the tank, and they'll send those down to the ground and the engineers will analyze how the tank do -- it looks good to me. In this picture right here, it looks like we've good intact foam there.

O'BRIEN: Hard to say, though. There'll be high resolution images later. This tank, of course, ends up disintegrating and falling mostly into the Indian Ocean. The only significant piece of the space shuttle system that isn't reused. Those solid rocket boosters that you saw that dropped off after a couple of minutes, get fished out and reused.

E. COLLINS: That's right.

O'BRIEN: And of course, the orbit will come back. They've got a tough mission ahead of them. Eileen Collins and Pam Melroy has her work cut out for her, doesn't she? E. COLLINS: Well, I'm really happy for the crew. You know, they've been training for this for so long, and Pam finally got her chance as a commander. She's doing a great job, I'm really proud of her, and proud of her crew, and keep an eye on the mission. We've got 14 days of just some exciting action up there.

O'BRIEN: Five spacewalks to come, putting in that very crucial Harmony node which is kind of like the circular piece in a tinker toy set, which allows other pieces to connect.

E. COLLINS: That's right, it's about the size of a living room, a typical living room in your home, although -- you don't just use the floor. You can use the whole space because it's zero gravity.

O'BRIEN: Eileen Collins, pleasure having you walk us through the first high-definition launch on CNN of the space shuttle "Discovery" on its way now to a two-week mission to the International Space Station -- Heidi?

H. COLLINS: CNN's Miles O'Brien recording history for us there out of the Kennedy Space Center along side former commander Eileen Collins. Boy, what a thrill in HD for the very first time ever. What a great launch.

Reporter covering the southern California fire story just can't seem to leave it at work. Look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On any given day, I would say welcome to my home. This is what is left of my home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

H. COLLINS: Story hits home. We'll have it for you coming up in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

H. COLLINS: I want to quickly get you up to speed now with the California fires that we have been covering for you all morning long. In fact, it's day three, basically, a pure hell for people living in southern California.

Some of the latest numbers that we have now after a lengthy press conference. It looks like about a thousand homes have been destroyed in San Diego County. More than 300,000 people have been evacuated. In fact, about 200,000 acres have now been burned and according to the San Diego County supervisor there, actually it may be approaching the 300,000 mark. That's acreage burned just in San Diego County.

Ten major fires there, the witch fire, which you have -- may have heard us talking about quite a bit, it's in the north, has now grown to 164,000 acres. And it is the main priority because of all of the significant threat to structures in the area. And we are talking about homes here. But unfortunately, there's fire burning in six other counties, as well. We know that the marines are going in. They've actually offered a battalion of about 800 sets (ph) stationed at Camp Pendleton. Of course, that's north of San Diego to help fight these fires.

We are certainly watching them as hard as it is to watch, obviously. We know that there's been one death, several injuries, and things are just not looking any better today according to our meteorologists here and our correspondents on the ground. It doesn't look like there's going to be much of a change in the weather and the winds until Thursday. So, we are watching it closely for you.

Meanwhile, the home of bronze, tanned, and Hollywood gold, Malibu has long held a certain mystique. CNN's Betty Nguyen takes a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hollywood's infatuation with Malibu goes back to the roaring '20s.

Swedish silent film star, Anna Nielson, was one of the first celebrities to settle in. A step behind were Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Gloria Swanson, and many others. It wasn't long before the area was dubbed the "Malibu movie colony."

Almost overnight in the '50s, Malibu became "surf city USA" due in large part to the novel "Gidget" and the movie based on the book. by the early '60s, the Beach Boys' first hit, "Surfin'" added to Malibu's fame. Around this time, hundreds of surfers were flocking to Malibu Point. It was probably inevitable that the point became known as Surfrider Beach.

General Motors jumped on the bandwagon in 1964 with the debut of the Chevy Malibu, as did Mattel in the '70s, when "Malibu Barbie" took to the stage and dressed in an aqua bathing suit, yellow towel, and sunglasses.

Of course, celebrities continue to swarm to the area, helping to trigger a development boom that lasted into the '90s. Just a few of the numerous stars with homes in Malibu today include Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Barbara Striesand, Sting, and Olivia Newton-John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

H. COLLINS: Hundreds of thousands of acres and evacuees. Amid the staggering numbers, it is easy to overlook the deeply personal stories. Lives changing with the last, first renegade spark.

One such story comes to us from Rancho Bernardo and the emotion- choked words of a reporter discovering his own home in flames.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY HIMMEL, REPORTER: On any given day, I would say welcome to my home, but this is what is left of my home just outside the Forest Ranch area. The fire crews have fought valiantly to save every house on this hill, at least took a shot at it, and were nice enough to let us up here.

That was our garage, the living room over there. There was a porch. Back there, the bedrooms. No pets left behind, family out, cars out, safe, but you can see my hose right here valiantly trying to do something, but this is it.

It's a southwestern style house. I've been in it about 25 years, out here when there was nothing. We did the cleared brush, we did what we could. This was a living hell coming over the hill. This is what I come home to today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

H. COLLINS: Every time I see that, I just can't believe how difficult it must have been to be there for that reporter. If you would like to help victims of the wildfire ravaging southern California, you can do it, do it through our "Impact Your World" initiative. Just go to CNN.com/impact and you can take action right now.

Fire on the horizon, but still so hard to leave home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've been here 36 years, and I think I'm going to stay until it's right there. Then I'm on that. My quad, down the highway.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

H. COLLINS: Some watch the skies and wait to go. Our California wildfire coverage continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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