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AMERICAN MORNING

Overwhelming Battle; Wildfire Forecast; California Burning

Aired October 24, 2007 - 06:00   ET

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


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Breaking news for you on this AMERICAN MORNING. It is Wednesday, the 24th of October. I'm John Roberts live in San Bernardo, California.
KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Kiran Chetry, just about 20 miles south from John's location. We're here at the QUALCOMM center. It's the home of the San Diego Chargers, but this morning, and for the past three nights, it's been a shelters for the thousands of fire evacuees.

If you're just joining us this morning, here is what's new with the southern California fires. The number of people evacuated from their homes now reaching close to a million and right here at QUALCOMM Stadium this morning there are around 12,000 evacuees camped out according to officials. Every single one of them has really an incredible story and we're going to meet some of them as the morning goes on.

We're also watching two fires that are burning right now at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego. It's home to thousands of Marines. One CNN producer saying that the flames there have now reached the ocean. Interstate 5, the main connector, is closed in both directions. One of the fires, a back fire, was deliberately set to try to protect parts of the base.

Also new this morning, there are some new evacuations at Lake Arrowhead. It's northeast of Los Angeles. Ten thousand homes are in jeopardy, 400 homes already burned. We're going to be having live reports up and down the west coast.

And also, just to give you a quick look at the location behind me, quite organized here to make sure that they're bringing some measure of comfort to the many people who were either rudely awakened or decided on their own that they needed to get out of their homes for their own safety. But there's a check-in area here. A little message board of sorts offering resources, including crisis counseling, as well as places where they can log on to the Internet to find temporary housing. We're going to show you a lot more of what they have here at QUALCOMM, John, to try to make it an easier transition for those who are waiting to get back to their homes.

John.

ROBERTS: Certainly more and more people with each hour among the people who are without a place to go. For many of them, it will be a situation where they don't have any place to go back to. Got news this morning about new fires breaking out. This one in the town of Julian. It's about 40 miles to the northeast of San Diego. Three thousand people live there. They have been ordered to evacuate. Some of the problems that they're having, though, getting people out, there are three exits, three ways in and out of Julian. One of those has been blocked by fire.

And we heard early this morning that there has been an arrest of a fellow who apparently up in San Bernardino County was trying to light a fire, this is up in Hesperia, which is near Big Bear, near Lake Arrowhead, where there has been so much destruction. Don't know too much information at this point, but we'll try to get you more as the morning progresses.

As more than a dozen wildfires tear a path along the Pacific Coast, from Santa Barbara down to the Mexican border and into one of America's biggest and most beautiful cities, San Diego. The fires ravaging San Diego County. They were expected to get much worse before they get better. Over the next couple of days, city and county officials expect that the fires will eclipse the damage that was done by the famous Cedar Fires back in 2003. That is the worse wildfire on record in California's history.

Some good news could come later today. The fierce winds that have fanned these fires since the weekend are expected to ease off. In fact, this morning, this is very different than the coverage we were bringing you yesterday and Monday morning in that the wind is not howling as it was over the last couple of days. So perhaps that's a sign of things to come. We'll be checking in with Rob Marciano on that front in just a couple of moments.

Some amazing video in this morning that takes you right into the line of fire with firefighters as they scramble to save a house from total destruction. Take a quick listen to what was going on.

Just look at the intensity of those flames and how close the firefighters are to it as they wrestle with that hose trying to put some water on the fires. This was up in Running Springs in San Bernardino County. Up in that Big Bear, Arrowhead lake area. \

In Lake Arrowhead, 400-plus homes have been destroyed. These fellows rolled up to this fire, this hot spot in heavy pine trees there, which is different than some of the brush that we have seen and some of the terrain that we have seen burn here, where is mostly scrub. These are large pine trees. Just rolling up in an SUV, pulling out a hose and trying to attack the fire.

And you can see it sweeping up the ridge line there. Some of the heavy artillery that they bringing in here. You can see that helicopter. It can drop about 800 to 1,000 gallons of water on a fire. And they've got some of those huge super tankers that can put down thousands of gallons of fire retardant in a single pass.

Fire fighters are facing an overwhelming battle on the front lines, as can you see there, and they can use all the help that they can get. Some 1,500 Army National Guard troops have been called up, including 200 from the Mexican border. Governor Schwarzenegger called them back from border patrol in the last couple of days.

Fire crews from nearby states have also joined in the fight. And Governor Schwarzenegger says more than 2,000 inmate firefighters from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are also working hand in hand with those firefighters on the front lines. More than a thousand homes have been lost so far. About a half a million acres burned.

Firefighters stretched too thin to save them all, being shipped around from fire to fire as these hot spots break out. Crews are working around the clock to try to contain the fires.

AMERICAN MORNING's Chris Lawrence is just a few miles north of me right outside of Camp Pendleton, the huge Marine base in southern California. He joins us now live.

Chris, what's going on where you are?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, I'm standing on the 5 freeway. As you can see, there's absolutely no traffic behind me. The 5 freeway is closed in both directions. This is the main highway, the main artery between Los Angeles and San Diego. It's been closed now for well over an hour. You can see one of the fires burning just off the 5 that was sending embers flying over the highway and a tremendous amount of smoke as well billowing. The larger fire is about five miles up the road.

One of the fire fighters told me, he said, one morning we're fighting a fire like this. A few hours later we could be putting water on million dollar homes. We spent a day with fire fighters and got a real sense of just how difficult some of the decisions are that they make and some of the harsh pressures that they are out here facing every day.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE), get some more hose.

LAWRENCE, (voice over): An army of firefighters is deploying to California's front lines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Open it up. Here we go.

LAWRENCE: About 7,000 strong from Arizona, Oregon, even North Carolina.

RICK LINSKI (ph), STRIKE TEAM LEADER: By the end of the day, we need to save 100 homes. One hundred.

LAWRENCE: Strike team leader Rick Linski spells out the goals and sets the rules.

LINSKI: Do not block the street. Let a house burn before you block the street.

LAWRENCE: But his men aren't used to this. LINSKI: These guys are from Congnent (ph), Vernon (ph), Montebello (ph). These are inner city departments. We're used to going in and busting on a fire for maybe an hour or two. Maybe three.

LAWRENCE: Now they've been working for two or three days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very exhausted. How do you fight the exhaustion? We don't have a chance to rest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bell went off. They jumped on the engines. They went to Malibu. They went to the Magic Fire up there at Magic Mountain and now we're down here.

LAWRENCE: City firefighters try to save everything. Linski has to teach them to let a home burn.

LINSKI: The objective is, lose a few, save 100 instead of anchor and save for sure 10 but then maybe lose 80.

LAWRENCE: The firefighters can't go all out all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, it's going to get worse. The winds are going to pick up at night and at 2:00 in the morning, I can't have (INAUDIBLE).

LINSKI: And when that fire overruns you, you've got to have a reserve to give it 100 percent at that time.

LAWRENCE: They push past exhaustion, day after 90-degree day, with no real reward.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You guys saved our house. Thank you.

LAWRENCE: Except a few words from a homeowner that make it all worthwhile.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: And that's what every firefighter really loves to hear, that they actually made a difference out here. As you can see, fires still burning here. In a couple of minutes we're going to take a ride about five miles up north where some of the firefighters were telling us an even bigger blaze, a more important blaze is burning.

John.

ROBERTS: We got some information, Chris, that in the area that you're in right now there have been some back fires that have been lit trying to break that fire so that it doesn't jump into the Marine base. What do you know about that?

LAWRENCE: Yes, Camp Pendleton sent a back burn in order to protect some of its assets and burned off some of the fuel. And I asked the firefighters, is this the back burn and they said, no, that was set, you know, further back. This was a fire that just broke out. But, again, they're not as concerned about it as the one that's burning about five miles further up the 5 freeway north.

ROBERTS: All right, Chris. We'll let you get on the road and get up to that one.

You know, wildfires can become so intense sometimes that they actually create their own weather, and in some cases can take on tornado-like qualities. Take a look at this incredible video from the fire in Silverado Canyon, California. The swirling inferno is called a firenado.

You can see on the ground, it almost looks like a tornado, but it's actually whipped by the flames and rising heat coming off the ground there. Almost, as I said, like it's creating its own weather. As you get that intense heat coming off the ground, the wind can start to turn around and circle and can actually reach a substantial force as it's going around there. Look at the tongues of fire that are shooting up there as it creates that weather pattern, taking all that hot air up into the sky.

This morning, though, perhaps a little bit of good news to report. A lot different than it has been the past few. Winds are way down. Is this the much anticipated shift in those Santa Ana winds that have fueled these wildfires? Our Rob Marciano joins us this morning with a look at that, the fire forecast.

So is this the change that people have been looking for?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Today is our day of transition. And typically when we come out of a Santa Ana event, you have a day where winds aren't really blowing one way the another. And that's pretty much what's going to happen today.

We will eventually go onshore, which is a good direction, as we go toward tomorrow and Friday. That will really increase the levels of humidity and it will also decrease the temperatures.

Yesterday, big-time temperatures. We had record heat and that certainly doesn't help firefighters. Take a look at some of these numbers out of California. A lot of records set across the board. Temperatures soaring into the 90s in many cases. Temperatures in Santa Ana, 99 degrees, Fullerton, 99, Oxnard, 96, in Oakland, as far north as the bay area, 87 degrees.

So we had record heat and we also had winds yesterday, in some cases gusting over 80 miles an hour. But through the overnight period, we did, as John mentioned, saw a decrease in winds and certainly a little bit more calm in the spot that we were at yesterday.

Laguna Peak, 50 mile an hour winds. In Newhall Pass, 41 mile an hour winds. And Malibu Hills, 35 mile an hour winds and that was last night. So we're starting to see that decrease.

However, there is still a critical fire danger in effect from the storm's prediction center out of Norman, Oklahoma. Winds, today, will be 20 to 30 miles an hour. Much lighter, but still blowing and still perilous and relative humidity levels will be on the low side.

There are also red flag warnings that are posted for today until 3:00 this afternoon for the same reasons. High winds, some heat and low levels of humidity. But as we go tomorrow, we'll start to turn those winds onshore and that will start to at least help firefighters.

This has been an extraordinary event in many ways. Not only the fires, John, but the Santa Ana winds. They typically only last for a day and a half, about 36 hours. This has been going on since Sunday. So about twice as long as you normally would see them and certainly that's part of the recipe for disaster here.

ROBERTS: Very intense. We're also noticing this morning, Rob, it's a lot cooler than it has been the last couple of days. And when those winds shift around onshore, bring in that higher humidity count (ph), what would the immediate effect on the fires be? To knock them all the way down or just give firefighters a chance to get a handle on them?

MARCIANO: It would give them a chance to at least get a handle on them. But it will -- I mean any firefighter will tell you, when you have low levels of humidity and you have that heat, the fire just grows rapidly. So it should lay down the flames and, at the very least, maybe even turn back the flames over areas that have been burned out. If you get a direct shift of the wind, you turn that fire around, boom, it goes into an area that's already been burned, it doesn't have a whole lot of fuel. So there's a number of benefits to having that wind shift. And we'll look for that tomorrow.

ROBERTS: Certainly people in this area can get a break. Because as you can see behind Rob and I, this is one of dozens of homes in this immediate area that have been burned completely to the ground. Just in the one little neighborhood that we're if, there are at least six to 10 of them that have suffered this exact same fate. So anything that can help to tamp down these fires certainly would be welcome.

Rob, thanks very much.

MARCIANO: You got it.

ROBERTS: Now let's go back to the city of San Diego. Kiran is at the QUALCOMM center.

Hey, Kiran.

CHETRY: That's right. You know, and usually QUALCOMM is the home to the San Diego Chargers. They're actually now training in Arizona. They had to clear out of here to make way for as many as 15,000 fire evacuees that are now calling the stadium home and have for the past three days.

You know, a lot of them have their stories of uncertainty and loss. They say that they actually are getting a lot of information and they're very happy with the efforts going on right now to help them know what's going on, know what they possibly could be going back to. But many of them say they really very no idea what they're going to return to when all of this is finally over.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It has absolutely been unbelievable. I've been in two wars and leaving our house, it was like being in a war zone. The fires were engulfing all over around us. Houses I've looked at for 10 years had been engulfed in flames.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The pounding. Just real, real loud pounding on the door. You've got to get out. You've got to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you'd like to help volunteer, we still have thousands and thousands of people to feed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Water anyone?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHETRY: President Bush, by the way, is scheduled to visit this area. He's coming tomorrow. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also already here to take a firsthand look at the devastation a bit later today.

You know, joining me now is Ali and Tammy Ebadat. They live about 20 miles north of -- actually at the location where John Roberts and Rob Marciano are today in Rancho Bernardo. They join me now to talk a little bit about what they're going through.

First of all, thanks for being with us this morning.

How has the situation been here at QUALCOMM?

ALI EBADAT, RANCHO BERNARDO EVACUEE: It's very good. They help us as far as feeding and bedding is very good. And they're taking care of us. Of course, wish we could take a shower, but it's OK. We're sleeping in our cars the past two nights.

CHETRY: Oh, so after two nights of being in the car, you decided to come here to QUALCOMM.

A. EBADAT: Yes, we've been in QUALCOMM.

TAMMY EBADAT, RANCHO BERNARDO EVACUEE: Yes, we've been evacuated here, but . . .

CHETRY: So you're here but you're sleeping in your car.

T. EBADAT: Yes.

CHETRY: I got you. Now they were talking about trying to get some shower facilities up and running, the locker room facilities. I know that's probably good news. Probably a long line, though, because there are a lot of people here.

Tammy, tell me a little bit about what type of information you're getting as to whether or not you know if your house made it through this fire.

T. EBADAT: They set up an area where there was a list and they have houses, you know have actual number and house street where you can look, you know, call it up and look. And we noticed, like I said, both of our neighbors' house are gone but it looks like ours is standing. But there's not guaranteed there's no damage or anything, it's just not destroyed.

CHETRY: So you learned that both of your neighbors on either side of you lost their homes. What are some of your concerns as you get prepared to return to your community and see what's left?

T. EBADAT: I don't know. I'm just worried, you know, I'm trying to gear myself -- because knowing that their houses are gone it's like kind of -- I know it's going to be so emotional. So just mostly that, you know.

A. EBADAT: Yes, our kids, that's the first time for us, too. But they're young and they don't know what to expect when you go back to see the house and the neighborhood. It's very . . .

CHETRY: How old are your kids?

A. EBADAT: Eighteen and twenty.

CHETRY: Eighteen and 20. Well, you guys are planning to stay here throughout today or are you going to try to head back today depending on the news that you hear?

T. EBADAT: Yes, like I said, we're hoping -- I know our area they're not going to open for a while. So we're expected to stay out for a while.

CHETRY: Well, we wish you guys luck. They do have fire insurance, which is a bit of good news in this, and hopefully your house still is standing.

Thank you so much for talking to us.

You know, the Ebadat's are all like many people here who say that, yes, they have lots of family and friends. Unfortunately, all of their family and friends have been evacuated as well. As we've been saying, this is the largest peacetime evacuation of civilians since the Civil War. Some 950,000-plus all told to evacuate. QUALCOMM is just one of the many places where volunteers, local, state and federal officials have been trying to do what they can to provide information and some measure of comfort to the people who have been evacuated.

We also have some incredible pictures and harrowing stories of how people escaped the flames.

Plus, the latest from the fire lines.

All of that is ahead. AMERICAN MORNING, a special edition today. We'll be right back. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Up there on that hill, the fires, they were just coming down on us. We went to get things out and there was a red glow in the sky and then we came back and then there were 40-foot flames just booming down that mountain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's kind of hard to see everybody's house burned up. That's what's really kind of wearing on the firefighters. But we're out here. And some of the firefighters' own homes have burned up also.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHETRY: So those were some of the words of the different firefighters. And as they've been saying, so not only are the firefighters risking their lives on the front lines to try to save other people's homes, at time they're doing this while their own homes are not able to be saved either. So some very personal stories and we're going to be bringing them to you all day today. We're here at the QUALCOMM center. The place now, the temporary home of thousands of people who were forced out.

You know, some of the pictures that best tell the story of these fires are coming to us from CNN i-Reporters. Robert Bright (ph) lives in Foothill Ranch. It's about 70 miles north of Rancho Bernardo. That's where John's located, as well as Rob this morning. He says that the firefighters saved the entire community. There you see the pictures of the bright orange flames coming up out of the sky and the silhouettes of the firefighters. Crews were there all day and when the fire got to them, they held their ground against what can only be described as a wall of flames only 100 feet away. So there you see those pictures.

Also another one from Nagar Shepgar Abi Hosseini (ph). They took these pictures on the road from Rancho Santa Margarita. She and her husband were heading right into those flames in Foothill Ranch. And they did not know it until the cars ahead of them started slamming on their brakes and making u-turns. There you see the pictures as well. Literally looks like an approaching storm. But it is all of the smoke clouding the way as people tried to get out. She said it was surreal and shocking, saying that she felt like she was in a movie. She says she could see the embers flying and feel the heat from the flames some two miles away.

Also, this is what it looked like on the other side of that fire in Lake Forest. Bobby Myers (ph) took pictures amid the chaos. He says that people were running around with hoses trying to put out fires as burning embers rained down on them. His home is damaged, but not completely destroyed at this point. Also remember, if you would like to send an i-Report, if you have pictures, incredible pictures like the ones we've been seeing that really bring home this story and the enormity of the disaster here in southern California, please come to our website at cnn.com/i-report and we ask that you never put yourself in danger when you're shooting your report, either your pictures or your videos.

John.

ROBERTS: Just unbelievable pictures this morning, Kiran.

Right now we want to get the very latest on the status of all of the fires that are burning here in southern California. Scott Alber is with California's Office of Emergency Services. He's the chief spokesman. He is in Sacramento, joins us now on the phone.

Scott, what's the situation now in terms of the number of fires that are burning and how contained some of those fires may or may not be?

SCOTT ALBER, CA. OFFICE OF EMERGENCY SERVICES: Well, we have 18 fires throughout the region, (INAUDIBLE) major fires today. And, you know, not many of them have much containment. I mean, you know, most of them are 10 percent or less contained at this point.

ROBERTS: Do you have enough firefighters on the lines? Could you still use more?

ALBER: Well, we could always use more. But, you know, resources are continuing to arrive from throughout the state and from other states as well. So we're making progress in staffing up and we're, you know, doing the best we can with the logistic situation.

ROBERTS: There have been some complaints, Scott, that firefighters were not quick enough and the counties were not quick enough to respond to the outbreaks of these fires over the weekend. And it seemed that -- it seemed to coincide with some counties actually canceling their fire season, sending those seasonal firefighters home. Did that play at all into a lack of response or at least a delay in response to these fires?

ALBER: Well, you know, I'm from northern California. I know we experienced significant rain last week and so a couple of the counties did cancel fire season last week. I mean, that's indisputable. But southern California is pretty much on an all year, you know, fire season. They don't cancel fire season. So, you know, I can't really speak to how that might have affected the overall response of the state. I do know that northern California was able to send a lot of resources down here so, you know, I think that would be best answered by people higher in the chain of command than I am.

ROBERTS: All right. You know, the weather has been the big problem since the weekend with those Santa Ana winds blowing sometimes at almost hurricane strength and some gusts. Are you expecting a break from the weather today? ALBER: Well, we are. We're expecting the winds to moderate somewhat. There is still going to be areas that have significant winds and we still have, you know, critical fire weather, red flag conditions throughout southern California. But, again, we are expecting the winds to moderate somewhat today.

ROBERTS: All right. Scott Alber. He's the spokesman for the Office of Emergency Services for the state of California, talking to us this morning from Sacramento.

Scott, thanks very much. Good luck today, by the way.

Leaving in a heartbeat and leaving everything behind. From the furniture, to the family photos. Personal stories from the victims of the wildfire. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It has absolutely been unbelievable. I've been in two wars and leaving our house, it was like being in a war zone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, (R) CALIFORNIA: If you're told to evacuate, evacuate. Don't question anything. Just get out of your house. Because safety's the most important thing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHETRY: Well, they were forced to leave everything behind.

ROBERTS: I tell you, you know, Kiran, when you look at this . . .

Yes, I was just going to say, Kiran, when you hear the words of Governor Schwarzenegger and you put those together with the scene behind me, you know how important it is for people to heed those warnings and get out just as soon as they can. Because when the fires roar up through the hills and the valleys, they just take everything in their path. And this is only one of dozens of homes just in this one little neighborhood that I'm in here that have been burned to the ground, and there are now so many hundreds of people with no place to live.

CHETRY: You know, it was really eye opening when you and I were flying here last night and you could just see out the window of the plane, even from 15,000, 30,000 feet in the air, these ridges of fire just burning. And then you'd see a community. You'd think that we were done with the fires and then we go a little bit further and there would be a whole other ridge and fire line. So just the enormity of how many communities are impacted is really hard to get your arms around. The scope of this situation with nearly a million people evacuated, many of them forced to leave everything behind and a lot of them not knowing whether their precious memories, all of their belongings, their very homes would even be there when they got back. Some evacuees actually shared their experiences with us as they picked up their families and they escaped the flames.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My wife woke me up like at 12:00 and screaming and yelling, the flames are coming down. So we just loaded up the car real quick and came down here. We slept in our vehicle. We drove both vehicles. And it was just really quick. Really quick.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I saw on the mountain a fire and I said, oh, my God, I wake up my family because there's danger. And I said, let's go. I said, let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Very scary. You know, you never think that you're going to be in this kind of position but also, you know, it doesn't hit you until you're here with all these wonderful people that it actually happened. We haven't sleep. I know, my husband, he's been working three days so he's sleeping but other than that we're just -- you know, it's really hitting us and we just can't sleep.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: When disaster strikes or horrible events unfold, there are opportunities to affect change. In a network-wide initiative CNN is helping impact your world. You can go to cnn.com to see how you can make a difference, and there are certainly a lot of people here at Qualcomm are doing that. They're saying there are almost as many volunteers here today as people who were forced to evacuate. They are doing everything they can to make this an easy transition, an easy waiting period for people. They've really thought of almost everything.

They have areas where they are serving kosher food. They have a Crisis Counseling Center. They have a place where people can go for their pets, if they need their pets to be taken care of, and we're also going to be talking with two sailors who are volunteering their time. They worked in hurricane Katrina. They saw the devastation there. They wanted to come here to make a difference. We're going to be talking with them coming up, and we also have a really heartwarming story of a young mother, her husband and their 12-month-old baby. She is also behind me here this morning. They were forced to get out because the fumes and flames were so overwhelming in their neighborhood. They're worried about their little baby's health.

So, we are going to have much more with all of these people here gathered at Qualcomm and also declaring war on Mother Nature. The marines go to the front lines of this unprecedented fire fight as the flames threatened their homes as well. We're going to have much more ahead on the special edition, the Southern California wildfires here on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CHETRY: Welcome back. It is Wednesday, October 24th. I'm Kiran Chetry here at the Qualcomm Center in San Diego.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning to you. I'm John Roberts from Rancho Bernardo, California. That's about 20 miles northeast of Kiran's location and you can see behind me the extent of some of the destruction that these wildfires have exacted on this area in the last few days. This is a community, lovely community, outside of San Diego. It's home to about 20,000 people. There's somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 structures. Many of them, single-family homes like the one behind me, and in this little area that I am in right now, there's at least eight or ten homes that have been burned completely to the ground as this one has behind me, as the fire swept up through the canyon up the side of the hill. This is a scene, Kiran, that is repeated all over Southern California as the wildfires have now burned through a half a million acres of territory.

CHETRY: Half a million acres, some 950,000 people forced to evacuate their homes, or calling it the largest civilian evacuation since the civil war, and at least about 12,000 or so of those people are here at Qualcomm. This is the home to the San Diego Chargers. But right now, it is home to people who don't really know if they're going to have a home to go back to.

It's a very different scene as it's being described from what we saw in hurricane Katrina at the Superdome. The organization here is actually quite astounding. It seems as though every need was anticipated, and at this point extremely orderly. And there's a lot of information. That's one of the things as well when you deal with these natural disasters and so much is in flux that is so terrifying for people not knowing and so they have been trying really hard here to make sure that they have those resources, whether it's internet access or information from phone lines or just people coming by, thousands of volunteers, and they were able to let people know what is the latest in terms of the fire battles in your neighborhood?

You can actually log on and see whether or not your actual home burned. They're writing down addresses and they are putting these on an internet site that people can access. They also have ways for people to link up with lost relatives, family members. They have a place here where people can either bring their animals or if they need to try to get some help getting an organization to go to where they live to see if their animal is okay. So, all of that taking place here at the Qualcomm Center, and coming up in just a couple of minutes, we're going to hear from some of the volunteers giving of their own time to try to make things a bit more comfortable for the people who have been evacuated.

John?

ROBERTS: A scene very much like the one that we saw a little more than a couple of years ago down there in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina and hopefully the Federal response will be a little brighter than that one was, Kiran.

We want to bring you up to date now on how things look here in Southern California. Right now, as it stands, more than a thousand homes are now gone destroyed by the wildfires burning all across the region. Almost a million people, some 900,000 plus, have been evacuated and moved to safer areas like the Qualcomm Stadium there. Others have gone to live with friends for a little while. 18 active fires, according to the office of emergency services here in California, still being fought here this morning. Including two on the grounds of Camp Pendleton and closing I-5, that's the main north/south highway right there along the coast in both directions.

Only three fires have been contained so far. The fires are the big story here in Southern California at the moment but there's also another big story all the way across the country. Rob Marciano is here now with this weather expert with a look at extreme weather. In Tampa now, we got some tornado warnings.

(WEATHER REPORT)

ROBERTS: Is this part of that same system that threw out that tornado warning yesterday in Pensacola?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It is, as a matter of fact, and now that energy has moved off to the east. We could use a lot of the rain here, that's for sure. But the rain in Southern California doesn't typically get here until at least November, sometimes December, so this is the driest part of the year. That's why we get the Santa Anna winds and in this case the fires.

You know, the big story with fires has been the massive evacuation here at least in Southern California. So yesterday afternoon, I spent the day just checking out some of the shelters and seeing what people are doing after they got kicked out of their homes, and we saw an attitude that ran the gamut from just being shocked to actually kind of a California laid-back attitude, not too worried about it and then some folks, they just couldn't believe it was actually happening to them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BETTY SMITH, EVACUEE: It doesn't hit you until it hits home.

MARCIANO: For now, home for Betty Smith and her two dogs is a pup tent behind the local high school.

SMITH: What's going to happen when I do walk home and see what condition my house is in or may not be in. That's the scary part.

MARCIANO: More than 1,300 evacuees and all their pets are literally camping in the San Diego suburb of Mira Mesa. West of there, more than 300 were evacuated from area nursing homes in Del Mar. Officials are desperately trying to get them to better treatment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The challenge right now is having enough appropriate beds to send these individuals to.

MARCIANO: National Guardsmen assemble cots for the more than 2,000 other evacuees here. How do you sleep in a place like this knowing that your home may be at risk from a fire?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't. You really don't sleep.

MARCIANO: After a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call Nancy Winacki (ph) loaded up her horses, dogs and cats and could hardly see through her windshield as she drove away.

NANCY WINACKI (ph), EVACUEE: That's when the smoke and the ash had come in, and that's when I started thinking, oh, my gosh this is much worse than it was four years ago.

MARCIANO: Four years since the last record-setting fire scorched San Diego but never before has this many people been forced from their homes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARCIANO: If this keeps up, it could turn out to be certainly at least one of the worst, if not the worst fire event in California history and when you think about the massive evacuation and all the people, John, that have been forced out of their homes, we've had only really one civilian casualty, that is a testament to the California organization. They certainly have learned a lot from things like 9/11 and Katrina and also the folks in California, they certainly respect fire.

ROBERTS: Yes. You know, the FEDS and FEMA talked a very good game after hurricane Katrina, but it was a big difference between what they were saying and what happened on the ground. I think we have yet to see really what the federal response on the ground is going to be here. We'll try to get to some of that when we talk to the FEMA director coming up a little bit later on. Rob, good to see you. We'll keep the people surprise on that tornado watch.

MARCIANO: We'll do. You got it.

ROBERTS: We'll have more from the fire lines on AMERICAN MORNING, when the special edition returns from Southern California. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Opening the garage doors like opening an oven. All this hot air comes out at us.

FIREFIGHTER: Hey, Christian, get some more hose.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHETRY: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING. We're live from San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium right now. This is a temporary home of thousands and thousands of evacuees, but not only is it the home for evacuees, it's where a lot of volunteers who saw the pictures on television and had a chance to see some of the devastation said, you know what, I think can I help out. I think I can come here and make a difference and we're talking right now to two people who did. You know, San Diego is a navy town and we have two navy officers with us who were not only helping the evacuees, they were actually doing some work with the fires as well. We have with us Petty Officer Daniel Brautigam as well as Naval Seaman Jacob Hackfeld. Thanks to both of you for being here with us this morning. First of all, why did you decide to come out here and donate your time? You were not sent here by the military. You did it on your own.

JACOB HACKFELD, PETTY OFFICER, U.S. NAVY: Absolutely. Absolutely. They evacuated our area, our base. You know, they closed down the personnel and stuff like that. I'm sitting on my couch and watching TV and I'm thinking to myself why not, why not come out here. The community they provide for us in the Navy and the military on here, why can't we give back to them all the things that they have given back to us. I mean, I appreciate the town around here and what I do and what they do for me. We were just at a church I'd seen a couple hours ago helping them trying to get on the OES list for, you know, for getting evacuees down here. This is (INAUDIBLE) here. The Rock Church down on Rosencrantz (ph).

CHETRY: You saw the need and you wanted to help out with that and also, Daniel, you both were actually helping during Katrina as well. How does this effort here at Qualcomm differ from what you saw during the aftermath of Katrina?

DANIEL BRAUTIGAM, PETTY OFFICER U.S. NAVY: The effort here is a completely different story than what I saw in Katrina. Here you have a complete organization. You have a community coming together, getting things down and helping people out. It's just amazing the way everybody is interacting and the cooperation between civilians, military, everybody. Like I have mentioned before, traditionally in our society, we have different classes of people. You have your wealthy people, your middle class, your lower class, but here everybody kind of comes together and we're all just people helping each other out, and I think that's the most important thing that's going on right here right now is that everything is forgotten about and the main focus is getting people the help that they need.

CHETRY: You also talked about some of the heartbreaking stories of some of the elderly people that had to be evacuated from nursing homes and some of their needs. What are some of the biggest medical needs you're tending to here?

HACKFELD: Mostly, mostly stress-induced. A lot of smoke-induced nausea and stuff like that. A lot of people are, you know, their watching their TV while they here. Their watching their houses burn. A lot of it, I think, they have counselors out there that are helping. A lot of it is just I would say general, I don't want to say panic, but it's not, people are just worried. People are, you know, worried sick. I mean, just that phrase alone explains it all.

CHETRY: Yes, and you guys are doing a great thing. How long are you going to be out here, Daniel?

BRAUTIGAM: We'll be out here pretty much every day, any time we can. We've been working non-stop now for about 48 hours with a few hours of sleep in between. Just enough to get well rested, but we want to make sure that we provide the support that's needed out here and the United States Navy and especially personnel support detachment will continue to do that until everything is secured here.

CHETRY: Well, you guys are really good people volunteering your time, seeing that there's a need out there so thank you so much. Nice to meet both of you, Daniel Brautigam as well as Jacob Hackfeld. Again, both of them with the navy but coming out here on their own to try to fill a need here at the Qualcomm Center as the uncertainty still remains for the thousands of people who are still evacuated because of the smoke and because of those flames.

John?

ROBERTS: It's a good work that they are doing and certainly very welcome.

The wildfires here in Southern California Country are the worst disaster to hit the nation since hurricane Katrina. Federal emergency has been declared for seven California counties. And right now, a massive disaster relief effort is under way. The head of FEMA is scheduled to brief President Bush later on today on what things look like on the ground and what kind of federal aid might be Mr. Paulison, thanks for being with us. You know, all of this always comes back to the response to hurricane Katrina and I was there and the FEDS and FEMA talked a real good game but not much was going on in the ground. Can we trust that this time things will be different?

DAVID PAULISON, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: I think you just have to look and see what's happening on the ground. The coordination between the local community and the state with the federal government with the North Com, The Red Cross is on the ground. The fact that what you just heard with the two navy people volunteering. I was at Qualcomm twice yesterday and the volunteers, the outpouring of this community is just phenomenal. You are seeing a different organization. You are seeing a different type of response than the federal government put together in Katrina.

ROBERTS: Did the administration basically take an oath of administration policy saying no more Katrinas. That will never happen again.

PAULISON: Katrina was a wake-up call for emergency management across this entire country, including the State of California. Even the fact that in 2003, the fires we had here, San Diego had some lessons learned from that, and we have also. We've been putting those in place for the past two years, exercising, training, a change in our philosophy of how we're going to respond. This is a different organization. This is a new FEMA. I think you see it now. You're going to see us on the ground. The fact that what you see in Qualcomm is entirely a different situation than what you saw at the Superdome.

ROBERTS: All right. So, what specifically, Administrator Paulison is FEMA doing to help folks out. PAULISON: Well, first of all, the president signed an emergency declaration the day before yesterday that gave us some immediate needs and direct communications and also direct assistance to people and then last night when we added the individual assistance piece where people can call our 1-800-626-FEMA number and register themselves. They can go to the website at fema.gov and make sure they get online to get registered. If they have lost their home, if they're underinsured or don't have insurance, FEMA can step in and help.

We're working with the Red Cross to make sure we have enough supplies here, food, water, any types of needs that they're going to need in these shelters. We have about 20,000 people sheltered right now to make sure that they have the needs, that they have food and water and shelter and they have a safe place and security that the National Guard is providing. North Com is moving assets in here from the military. They are moving in six more c-130s in to help with the fire fighting. Right now, we're waiting for the weather to clear. You know, California has the best wild fire fighters in the entire world. And they just need a break with the weather and they will get a handle on these fires so we can get people back in their homes.

ROBERTS: Mr. Paulison, this was a little bit out of your orbit but you're a member of the administration so you should be able to feel it. Senator Barbara Boxer from California is complaining that because the National Guard from California is engaged in the war in Iraq, there were not enough members from the National Guard to respond to this fire. What do you say to that?

PAULISON: You know, she just does a great job for California. She really does. We've worked with her on some earthquake preparedness for the State of California, but I just haven't seen that. I talked to General Blum (ph) who runs the National Guard. They have plenty of guards' people in the country. There's emergency management assistance compact between states where we can move more Guardsmen in. The fact is that there are plenty of people on the ground and what we need right now is just a break in the weather and let the fire fighters who are out there really putting their lives on the line for the people in California to get a handle on these fires.

ROBERTS: Well, I think it's pretty safe to say, Mr. Paulison, a lot of people will be watching to see if FEMA's response is as it is promised. Thanks for being with us this morning though. Good luck in your response to this. A lot of people certainly in need.

PAULISON: Thank you, John.

ROBERTS: All right. AMERICAN MORNING will be back in just a moment with more coverage of the fires in Southern California. Stay with us on this special edition.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR: Unlike previous emergencies or natural disasters, this time everyone responded very quickly and there's a great coordination between everyone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. It took about ten minutes to get my family out, my daughter, my wife and the animals, and there was no time to think of anything except getting out of there, and it was only a moment ago that...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHETRY: And welcome back. We're continuing a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING this morning. I'm here at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. This is the home, the temporary home to thousands of evacuees who were driven from their homes. A mandatory evacuation up and down these parts because of the flames and because of the smoke.

John?

ROBERTS: Yes, and, you know, this headline in the inland "North County Times" says it all "Evacuate." Almost a million people have been told to get out of harm's way. We've got new fires this morning, one in Julian which is about 40 miles to the northeast of where we are and now take a look at these live pictures. This is in (INAUDIBLE). This is up near Camp Pendleton, the enormous marine base in Southern California. Some of this is -- some of it was a wildfire.

What you're looking at right here though is a controlled burn that was set, you know. What they try to do is rob these fires of fuel by setting these controlled burns. It burns away the scrub so that when it comes up against the main fire there's nowhere else for the main fire to go and, Kiran, I think it's safe to say that fire fighters are taking advantage of a lull in the wind this morning to try to get a handle on some of these areas that could easily burn out of control.

CHETRY: Right, and, I mean, although those flames look astounding, it actually is what they are calling a controlled burn or a back burn. As you said, trying to do that. There was no chance they could do that in the past couple of days because of the fierce Santa Anna winds that at times were gusting to hurricane strength. We are saying that a little bit calmer today, a glimmer of hope but the hard work certainly not done not only for all of the firefighters but the thousands upon thousands of volunteers and of course, the uncertainty faced by so many of these home owners not knowing what they are going to go back to.

Our coverage continues here in Southern California. Coming up we're going to talk to another woman. She and her husband just took a look at the winds, the fumes and said, you know what, it's time to get us out of here, especially with a 1-year-old baby. So, we're going to talk to her and we're going to have much more when AMERICAN MORNING comes right back.

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