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CNN NEWSROOM

Two Children Missing in Houston Have Been Found; President Bush Welcomes New Citizens in Monticello; Barack Obama Getting Heat Over Comments About Iraq and Troop Withdrawals; Popular Event Puts the Spotlight on New Orleans; Gas Prices Bubbling Up This Holiday Weekend

Aired July 4, 2008 - 09:00   ET

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


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Here's what's on the rundown now.
Hundreds of people pick up and run in the middle of the night. A Southern California wildfire brings danger to the doorstep.

HARRIS: A freed hostage flying to Paris this hour. Her arrival and embrace with the French president live.

COLLINS: The Fourth in Iraq. Another work day for medics. Live to a combat hospital in the NEWSROOM.

Extreme fire danger this morning in California. Roads closed, homes threatened, and more evacuations south of San Francisco.

CNN meteorologist Rob Marciano covering all of it for us.

Rob, what's the very latest now? We keep looking at this flame videos and every day they seem worse.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, they have a daily battle with the wind. It's not an extraordinary wind, but it's something that happens on a daily basis. When the sun goes down the winds kick off.

Right now they're not getting much in the way of winds. Winds are, generally speaking, off the ocean, north-northwesterly. But they get gusty certainly through the mountain canyons and at night they do tend to pick up.

Where we're seeing the most danger -- good thing here is not out of California. It's sliding now into parts of Utah and Nevada. So that will be isolated cases for red-flag warnings there.

The storm that kicked in some winds last night across Northern California now will create a critical fire danger through parts of -- Utah and parts of Nevada. Low relative humidities and winds gusting at 20 to 30 miles an hour.

Shift gears, briefly, we do have tropical storm Bertha that I do want to update you on. It's got winds of 45 miles an hour. It's moving west-northwesterly. It's a Cape Verde storm, which is pretty rare this time of year to have it this early in the year.

We do expect it to strengthen possibly to hurricane strength status. But at this point, the long-range models keep it in the ocean. And we certainly hope that will remain the case, getting out -- getting into hurricane season.

And also just getting into the beginning of fire season and they got off to a very quick start unfortunately in parts of California.

Heidi and Tony, back over to you.

COLLINS: Wow. All right, thank you, Rob.

HARRIS: Let's take you to Big Sur right now. Natural beauty, natural disaster. The California town's residents gone, evacuated in the face of a ferocious wildfire.

Here's CNN's Dan Simon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Boarding up windows, something people usually do for approaching hurricanes. But Dave Egbert thinks it may save his house from catching fire.

DAVE EGBERT, BIG SUR RESIDENT: I've been putting up this plywood because that's going to help protect the house from any radiant heat. That's the big thing I'm trying to do right now. I've been busting butt on this all day.

SIMON: Egbert shouldn't even be here. Big Sur and its 1,400 residents are under a mandatory evacuation order. But he says this house is also how he makes a living and will do anything to protect it.

He uses his garden to host a syndicated TV show about how to grow plants.

SIMON (on camera): Why are you staying?

EGBERT: Because this house is all I've got. I'm sorry. I've got to protect it. That's what I've got to do. So if I don't have a house, I don't have a livelihood. So I got to keep the house going as long as I can.

SIMON (voice over): Egbert knows more than most about protecting homes. He's also a volunteer firefighter.

EGBERT: I'm trying to do a balancing act, serving the community as I can and then trying to defend my home as I can.

SIMON: The fire is making an aggressive move not only toward homes, but Big Sur landmarks like the famous Ventana Inn resort, the hotel undergoing an $18 million renovation.

Fire crews are in place to douse any flames that may erupt here.

SIMON (on camera): So what happens if you got -- if you have embers that start coming this way towards the end? CHRIS AURINGER, FIREFIGHTER: Well, there's a lot of debris and litter on the grounds. It can catch fire and transfer fire to the structures. So we're going to remain in place.

SIMON (voice over): The fire raging for almost two weeks. Many of the 1,500 firefighters have been here since the beginning.

This woman making the most of her break.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You were supposed to get the number of the secondary resident that they were supposed to do.

SIMON: As for Dave Egbert says he would never want to live anywhere else.

(On camera): What is it that you love about Big Sur?

EGBERT: Well, of course, the beauty of it, you know? And it's kind of ironic that the beauty is the thing that's also could destroy us, because, we have really steep mountains covered in brush and trees. And that's the most beautiful thing about Big Sur, how it is so steep and extends to the ocean. But it also makes it incredibly difficult to fight fire.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON: Big Sur attracts thousands of tourists every summer, and, of course, you would have a lot of people for this Fourth of July weekend. But right now this town is completely empty.

Dan Simon, CNN, Big Sur, California.

HARRIS: Can you imagine that? Big Sur completely empty. Take a look at these live pictures now just about daybreak -- Goleta, California right now. And again, what we're seeing -- and we've been seeing it for days now, just this fast-moving fire, just burning the mountainside there just about a mile or so from homes. If you look to the upper right portion of the screen, I think you can make out a house there.

You know, we're also calling this the gap fire as well. About 3,000 acres burned in the last three days. About a half million acres in all burned by more than 1,700 California wildfires. And much of these wildfires sparked by lightning over the past two weeks.

Just wanted to show you these live pictures. We'll keep an eye on this. Certainly keep it on your radar right here in the NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: Doctors say three American hostages freed from the Colombian jungle are in good physical condition.

The men have been undergoing medical tests and reuniting with their families since they arrived on American soil late Wednesday.

The U.S. military contractors were taken hostage when their drug surveillance plane crashed back in 2003. They were among 15 hostages freed in a dramatic rescue operation by Colombian forces.

HARRIS: She spent more than six years as a hostage in Colombia. Next hour Ingrid Betancourt gets a hero's welcome and when she returns to France, her second home.

Our Jim Bittermann live from Paris now.

And, Jim, look, it sounds like quite a reception is planned.

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Tony. It's quite a transition for Ingrid Betancourt. 48 hours ago she was held captive in the jungles of Colombia. And just about an hour from now, she's going to be thudded across the city of Paris.

She basically lands at an airport outside of Paris and then moves to the presidential palace here where President Sarkozy will greet her. They'll meet with the press to some extent and then, I think, afterwards there's a possibility that they may go to city hall where her portrait has been up for months now.

There's a picture of her looking very desperate indeed in the jungles of Colombia and her portrait was hanging up as a way to sort of symbolize the struggle and her captivity.

After she was liberated, the sign was -- the portrait was -- possibly the sign had said "liberte," which means "freed" past tense in French. And so she may go to city hall and help them take that sign down, take the portrait down from the side of city hall. It's been flying there, as in other city halls across France.

Now before she left Colombia, she was asked by our sister network CNN Espanol exactly what other kinds of future plans she had, and here's what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

INGRID BETANCOURT, FORMER COLOMBIAN HOSTAGE: I'm a dreamer. So I hope of a better world. But that means many things to me, for example, being with my children. I want to have the opportunity to see them live. I want to see how they love.

They are adults now. They have love relationships with persons that I haven't met yet. So I want to discover that -- that life of -- of them. And I want to be active in -- beside them.

But there is another side which is fighting for the ones that are still in the jungles in Colombia. We need to have them out. We need to cry very loud to the world that what happens in Colombia must stop and we have to put all the pressure on the FARC so that they understand that there is not another issue than just to give the freedom to all those persons that are kidnapped right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BITTERMANN: Clearly she hasn't lost any of her political idealism after 6 1/2 years in the jungle -- Tony?

HARRIS: I was thinking -- Jim, I was thinking that very same thing. She went in as a politician and she sounds very much like a politician once again.

Jim Bittermann, can't wait for that picture coming up next hour right here in the CNN NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: Citizenship Day at Monticello. 75 people become America's newest citizens next hour at Thomas Jefferson's home. A live shot for you there.

President Bush is there to welcome them.

You can stay with us for coverage of the Annual Independence Day Naturalization ceremony at Monticello.

A beautiful shot.

HARRIS: Yes. A delicate matter at the U.S. State Department to tell you about. Passport snooping -- it's not over yet.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: "Making Their Mark" is sponsored by...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CPL. TYLER BARSTOW, U.S. MARINE CORPS: I'm Corporal Barstow out of Camp Taqaddum in Iraq. I just wanted to say Happy Fourth of July to my friends and family back in (INAUDIBLE), Washington. I miss you guys and I'll be home soon.

Being out in Iraq and serving my country on the Fourth of July means the world to me, because while I may not be able to be home with my friends and family and celebrate with them, I'm out here with my fellow Americans helping the Iraqi gain their own independence and enjoy the same freedom as we do back home.

So thank you, happy Independence Day, America, and thank you for the support.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: CNN "Security Watch" now. Remember that passport snooping story this spring? Some State Department workers lost their jobs over the matter.

It appears the snooping has not stopped and it's not just aimed at politicians.

CNN's State Department correspondent Zain Verjee joining us now live from Washington.

Zain, what's the latest on this? ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Heidi, the report is saying that there are some major holes in the system that's making it easy to access personal data of millions of Americans.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE (voice over): It started back in March with isolated snooping into senators Clinton, McCain, and Obama's passport files. That prompted personal apologies from the secretary of state, and she ordered the investigation.

Now a new State Department inspector general's report suggests a lot more snooping of celebrities' passport records than previously thought.

To test the system, investigators made up a list of 150 entertainers, politicians, athletes, some of the most searched on Google. 127 had their private records accessed.

It's not clear if the hits were authorized, but it's suspicious. Nine of the high-profile people had more than 100 hits on their files. We're told, too, that it's possible there's been more snooping into presidential candidates' passport records.

The report says snooping has gone undetected and unpunished. Passport records have personal information like your Social Security number or date of birth.

The State Department says it will cut in half the number of people that can look at files, but that still leaves 10,000 worldwide who could still peek.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE: They're also adding more investigators, Heidi. Right now they only have two, but that's going to be increased to eight. There are some other recommendations, too, for better security, but many of them were redacted, meaning they were blanked out in the report mainly because officials didn't want to make them public in case anybody abused the system even more -- Heidi?

COLLINS: It seems sort of like it's possible and I don't know this, obviously, for sure, but it sort of brings up the question, you know, maybe this type of thing has been going on for a very long time and we're just now learning about it?

VERJEE: Well, the suggestion from the report is that it has been going on for a long time. We're only -- it's only coming to the surface now -- since March when this scandal first hit the State Department.

They did an investigation, and they took this test and set up 150 people to see how many hits they had. So it seems as if this has been going on for a while and it's worrying for all of us who have passport details in the system and it's also embarrassing for the State Department. The State Department is saying, though, that they are tightening the controls and that they do understand the importance. And it is important to them to protect the security of Americans -- Heidi?

COLLINS: All right. CNN's Zain Verjee, appreciate that. Thank you, Zain.

Stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable information on your safety and security.

HARRIS: Freed from captivity, back home in the United States.

"Making Their Mark" this week, three Americans among 15 hostages rescued in Colombia. They survived more than five years in the jungle held by leftist rebels.

Doctors say the men are in good physical shape. They're being reunited with family members and getting reacquainted with day-to-day life.

The hostages were freed by the Colombian military in a dramatic rescue operation.

COLLINS: Makes you want to say happy Independence Day there, doesn't it?

Weigh in before the big prize fight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 105 pounds, ladies and gentlemen. And she can eat 40 hot dogs and buns. 117 certified...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARRIS: Wow.

COLLINS: Chow down challengers peak for today's hot dog eating contest.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CPL. MELINDA COTTON, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Hi, my name is Corporal Melinda Cotten. And I'm serving out here in (INAUDIBLE) Camp in Iraq.

I want to give a shout out to my husband, Ryan, I love you, and all my friends and family in (INAUDIBLE), Florida.

Serving on the Fourth of July means a lot to me because all Americans present and future can enjoy the freedoms that our service members have and are fighting for.

Happy Fourth of July, America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARRIS: And they're off. And the winners of the 39th Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta are -- stay with me for a second here -- Terefe Maregu of Ethiopia in the men's division and Nataliya Berkut of Ukraine for the women.

Now next hour, the winners will be an Ethiopian and a Ukrainian. They were among 55,000 runners on the streets of Atlanta this morning.

The annual 10k run is a Fourth of July rite of passage here in Atlanta.

OK. And live pictures here. Are they coming up? All right.

COLLINS: We have to give you this story now out of Iraq. It's no holiday from war. The 345th combat support hospital in Iraq in service 24/7.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen has a story now from Camp Spiker. It's near Tikrit.

Frederik, we've been wondering about how the day will go there today.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, today is basically business as usual here at the Combat Support Hospital. There's been a fair amount of stuff going on. Most of it has been fairly minor stuff. And sure, the soldiers here probably more than any other soldiers stationed in Iraq, and probably in Afghanistan, as well, they hope that this day here will remain quiet.

Now I was on the night shift here actually leading into the Fourth of July. And let me just show you what that was like.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice over): The night before Independence Day in an American combat support hospital near Tikrit, Captain Ricky Kue and a team of doctors and nurses are working to stabilize an Iraqi soldier who was severely injured trying to stop a suicide bomber from blowing up an Iraqi hospital.

CPT. RICKY KUE, U.S. ARMY: He's essential sustained injuries where he lost both of his eyes, traumatically, injuries to his left upper extremity, left leg. And they're getting both of those extremities amputated. Both of his eyes removed because of the trauma.

PLEITGEN: They'll get very little sleep on this Fourth of July, but this soldier say this Iraqi men reminds them of what they're fighting for.

KUE: Well, every day it's Independence Day feeling when you're here, you know, getting to do what I get to do. It's that feeling of being able to practice what we get to celebrate every Fourth of July. PLEITGEN: Medivac helicopters regularly land at the 345th Combat Support Hospital, but the soldiers say things have slowed down recently, and the wards are practically empty.

Even so, on Independence Day, many at the hospital see their mission in sharper focus.

LT. COL. WALTER BENHERT, U.S. ARMY: There are days like Memorial Day, Fourth of July, that are reflective on why we're here and sort of -- kind of bolsters our pride in our country. So we do celebrate that in our own -- way.

PLEITGEN: Still, they say, even with a lull in casualties, they know they can't afford to let their guard down.

On quiet days, they organize blood donation drives in case they ever run short. And on the eve of Independence Day, we can see why.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: You know, one thing that's really interesting about these combat support hospitals here in Iraq is they don't only treat American soldiers. They also treat soldiers from the Iraqi army. And they'll even treat insurgents if they're brought in here. It's really hard to overestimate the value and the importance of these combat support hospitals for the operation here in Iraq and, of course, also for the operations going on in Afghanistan.

The doctors and nurses here -- they work very, very long hours. Of course, they see a lot of terrible trauma here, all very, very professional soldiers. And tonight they're going to be having a barbecue here. They're celebrating the fourth of July.

And one thing that just -- that you sort of get from people when you talk to them here is that many say they're very proud to be serving their country on a day like this, but many also say this is a day that they especially miss their families back home.

COLLINS: I bet they do. But boy, I like that part about the combat hospitals looking nearly bare. It's a totally different scene than we have seen in the past, certainly.

CNN's Frederick Pleitgen, life for us this morning -- thank you, Frederick.

HARRIS: You know, it isn't the Fourth of July without hot dogs, Heidi.

Our Allan Chernoff is at one place where they're doing it for money and fame -- the Nathan's Hot Dog-Eating Contest in Coney Island.

And Allan, it is always a wonderful day when the world of competitive eating pays a visit to the CNN NEWSROOM.

Good morning, sir. ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Tony. Let me try to give you a sense of the tension here in Coney Island this morning. I understand that the competitors are so nervous they actually woke up this morning sweating mustard.

And as we speak, they are actually picking mustard seeds from their skin.

Now, why is this? Because of the belt, the mustard yellow belt. This is what it is all about. And frankly, this is the reason that thousands of fans will be here before this hallowed stage later today to cheer on the American champion, Joey Chestnut. He has brought just incredible pride to this country, especially to these fans because he has brought this mustard yellow belt back to American soil.

How did he do it? Last year, he consumed 66 hot dogs and buns in only 12 minutes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joey Chestnut!

CHERNOFF (voice over): To competitive eating fans, Joey Chestnut is nothing less than an American hero.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joey! Joey!

CHERNOFF: Chestnut is a hot dog eating machine who recaptured American glory last July 4th by defeating Japanese eater Takeru Kobayashi -- a victory over the six-time champion that returned the mustard yellow belt to American soil.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In first place, with 66 hot dogs and buns, Joey Chestnut!

CHERNOFF: Walking down New York's Canyon of Heroes, home to Ticker Tape Parades, Chestnut can still taste his triumph.

JOEY CHESTNUT, NATHAN'S HOT DOG-EATING CHAMPION: I know and people have told me that they were proud. They're proud that day.

CHERNOFF (on camera): Proud that your an American.

CHESTNUT: Yes. Proud that an American was able to win.

CHERNOFF (voice over): In these dark days of sky-rocketing gas prices, mortgage foreclosures and plummeting stocks, at least America has Joey Chestnut.

GEORGE SHEA, MAJOR LEAGUE EATING: In dark moments we need someone to stand up and be a leader and Joey has done that. And he has broad shoulders and he's taking on the burden of a nation.

CHERNOFF: A victory that was inspiring even to Michelle Obama- (INAUDIBLE) eating fans, who believes her controversial pride comments was clearly a reference to Joey Chestnut. MICHELLE OBAMA, BARACK OBAMA'S WIFE: For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country.

SHEA: When I heard Michelle Obama said that, I was thinking she's talking about Kobayashi losing and Joey winning. It made perfect sense to me.

CHERNOFF: With proven performance comes pressure to repeat, America's pride now rides on the jaws and esophagus of Joey Chestnut, especially since Kobayashi is hungry to restore honor to his nation.

TAKERU KOBAYASHI, FMR. NATHAN'S HOT DOG-EATING CHAMPION (Through translator): I feel like this is the Olympics and that's how I feel about competitive eating.

CHERNOFF: To defend his title, Chestnut has been training diligently, speed eating twice a week for the past three months.

CHESTNUT: Every time I go to sleep, I'm thinking did I push myself harder today -- hard enough today during practice?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHERNOFF: Joey Chestnut, clearly a man obsessed with eating competitively for his nation.

Now, Tony, remember this year, the rules have changed somewhat. The contest over here at Coney Island will last only 10 minutes, not 12 minutes. But Joey Chestnut, the champion that he is, has vowed that once again, he will consume 66 dogs and buns, but this time in only 10 minutes -- Tony?

HARRIS: We love everything about this story. We love everything about your approach to it. Oh Heidi?

COLLINS: I was just going to say, I mean, you know, we always witness some type of history on the Fourth of July.

HARRIS: Oh man.

COLLINS: It usually has to do with Independence Day and freedom, and all this wonderful things about being in America, but today, because of that time limit change, we may be witnessing history regarding hot dogs.

It's big. It's huge.

HARRIS: Everything -- and we will be -- and you know this, Allan, to be true. We -- this entire news room will be in front of every monitor available watching that competition, and you know it to be true. Can't wait to talk to you again next hour.

Allan Chernoff, Coney Island, where he is every year for us, good to see you, sir.

COLLINS: Thanks, Allan. You know I don't know...

CHERNOFF: The world will be watching, Tony and Heidi.

HARRIS: Yes.

COLLINS: Yes. Absolutely. I don't know how I missed it, though, before and previous years so I just had no idea that you had to eat the buns.

HARRIS: Oh yes, yes, yes. And the dipping and the goo and the -- sorry. I don't want to...

COLLINS: There's some discrimination going on here, too, because I bet they don't have gluten-free buns.

HARRIS: No. No, you're right about that.

COLLINS: Yes. All right.

Anyway, want to talk about this because everyone is worried about gas and gas prices. Well, this woman heard free gas and floored it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was at the beauty shop and a friend called in and said they were giving free gas, so I ran down here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: With your shower cap and all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Shower -- am I on TV?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Bad hair days but so worth it, in the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: Quickly, we want to give you this information just in to the CNN NEWSROOM regarding two children in Houston, Texas. Police have now put out, I imagine, an amber alert, but I actually do not have that. We want to just let you know that two children are missing in Houston. And it is very discerning because they were inside of a car, a pickup truck to be exact, that was stolen.

So police are now searching for these two kids. After the truck they were in was stolen, Southwest Houston. That's pretty much -- oh, the police are saying that a man jumped into this woman's pickup truck as she was putting air in its tires. It all happened at a gas station. If you know the area, West Airport Boulevard at Fondren Road.

Again, this happened just a little while ago here this morning. Two children are missing now inside that pickup truck. Police are on the alert. We'll stay on top of that one for you. HARRIS: Boy, and still to come in the line of fire. In California, flames burn an area almost twice the size of the city of Los Angeles. Think about that for a second. Live coverage all day in the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: Monticello, home of the third president, Thomas Jefferson. 76 people will become new citizens there today. President Bush on hand to welcome them. Very special day, a live shot for you.

CNN's Kathleen Koch is live at the White House for us.

Greeting new citizens certainly something of a tradition for the president on the Fourth, right?

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN GENERAL ASSIGNMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, a tradition for presidents in particular at Monticello. President Bush is the fourth sitting president actually to travel to Monticello to take part in their Independence Day celebrations there. As you mentioned, the president will be participating in the naturalization ceremony, swearing in some 76 men and women from 30 different countries.

They've been doing this there at Monticello since 1963, welcoming a total of roughly 3,000 new Americans over the years. Now, at today's ceremony, not only will the Virginia governor be on hand. Local officials, some 3,000 guests. The president will be making remarks. He will also as each new citizen takes the oath of citizenship, the president will then shake their hands. And then, finally, leading everyone in the pledge of allegiance will be a local World War II veteran Chubby Profit (ph). So it should be quite a celebration.

Heidi?

COLLINS: Yes. What a special day for those people with the president there and everything. Wow. They must have done well on that test that I know they had to take a while back.

KOCH: I'm sure they did.

COLLINS: Yes. So what is on the president's agenda for tonight now?

KOCH: Well, midday, he returns here to the White House. And then, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino tells me that he and First Lady Laura Bush will be welcoming friends and families here to watch the fireworks, obviously, up on the Truman Balcony, the best view in Washington.

And they are also -- Perino tells me going to be celebrating the president's birthday, which is July 6th. He'll be turning 62 years old that day. However, on his birthday, he will be just arriving in Japan for the group of a economic summit. So they're going to be doing a little extra celebrating tonight. COLLINS: Yes. His last G8 as well. All right. Thanks so much. CNN's Kathleen Koch outside the White House this morning.

KOCH: You bet.

HARRIS: And south of Big Sur, California, another wildfire threatening homes. It is burning on the edge of Goleta. A town near the seaside city of Santa Barbara. The fire is at the state's top priority now because of the immediate danger to residents. Mandatory evacuations were ordered overnight for mountain home communities.

Our Rob Marciano tells us a gusting evening wind called Sundowner winds have been making it tough for firefighters to get a handle on the blaze.

COLLINS: Big threat to Big Sur as we've been saying. The CNN California Costal Community facing a devastating wildfire now. And Rob Marciano is watching all of the weather there for us.

We keep talking about how beautiful it is and what a shame when you see these flames. Some of that video you're showing earlier, the trees just crowning and completely blowing up at the top.

(WEATHER REPORT)

COLLINS: Presidential politics this Fourth of July. John McCain takes a break from the campaign trail, while Barack Obama heads west. He takes part in a parade and picnic in Butte, Montana. Only two Democrats have carried the state since 1948.

John McCain spending the day at his family compound outside Sedona, Arizona. He's just back from Colombia and Mexico. McCain's Web site asks everyone to remember the troops this Independence Day.

HARRIS: Barack Obama getting heat over comments about Iraq and troop withdrawals. CNN's Jessica Yellin filed this report last night.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Barack Obama faced a firestorm about whether he's backing off the central pledge of his campaign, to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. The concern became so intense, he found himself in an odd spot holding a do-over press conference.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESUMPTIVE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: We're going to try this again. Apparently, I wasn't clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq.

YELLIN: The problem? Obama triggered a deluge of questions with this statement earlier in the morning.

OBAMA: When I go to Iraq and I have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I will have more information and will continue to refine my policies.

YELLIN: Republicans accused him of flip-flopping. So, he faced reporters a second time to insist he's been clear all along.

OBAMA: That I would bring our troops home at a pace of one to two brigades per month, and, at that pace, we would have the combat troops out in 16 months. That position has not changed. I have not equivocated on that position.

YELLIN: When pressed, he refused to commit to that 16-month time frame, insisting any good commander-in-chief adjusts.

OBAMA: I would always reserve the right to do what's best in America's national interests. And if it turned out, for example, that we had to, in certain months, slow the pace because of the safety of American troops, in terms of getting combat troops out, of course we would take that into account. I would be a poor commander in chief if I didn't take facts on the ground into account.

YELLIN: Though he insists he intends to end the war. Still, the McCain campaign quickly fired off a statement insisting that Obama has 'reversed his position, proving once again his words do not matter, that they are just empty words.

Obama fired back, saying, they're playing politics.

OBAMA: I think what's happened is that the McCain campaign primed the pump with the press to suggest that we somehow we were changing our policy, when we hadn't.

YELLIN: And his Democratic allies agree.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think Senator Obama today did a good job of tamping down this one-day rumor that somehow he was shifting on Iraq. If I were to give him a little coaching advice, it would be, don't answer hypothetical questions. Presidents don't run a hypothetical country.

YELLIN (on camera): Clearly, the McCain campaign thinks it's found a strategy, accusing Obama of changing positions now on a number of issues, and will keep pressing its flip-flop claim.

Jessica Yellin, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: A popular event puts the spotlight on New Orleans. The Essence Music Festival in a city still recovering from Katrina.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARRIS: A major event kicks off in New Orleans today. The Essence Music Festival puts the spotlight on a city still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Our Fredricka Whitfield live from New Orleans for us this morning.

And Fred, I know you love that event. But the truth is, it is such an important event as that great city continues to recover.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really is. And I love this city, Tony. That I know you know. Well, you know, this is the 14th Annual Essence Music Festival. And clearly music, by its name sake, is central to this festival.

Of course, they are attracting entertainers from Mary J. Blige to Kanye West and Jill Scott. But also, the core of this festival is about empowerment. There are panels and seminars with real heavy hitters. Some real great brainiac who's been attracted to be here. Dr. Julianne Malveaux is one. Dr. Alvin Pouissant, who are both committed to talk to us over the next three-day period, Tony.

But, you know, while the rest of the nation is experiencing stay- cations, people want to stay exactly where they are this holiday weekend because of gas prices, because of air fare. Yesterday, when I took a walk around, I found that there are license plates from all over. People have come here in great numbers. Up to 20,000 people are expected to attend this festival. And certainly, it's a real boost to the economy here in New Orleans.

This festival is very aware of issue number one, not just for New Orleans, still rebuilding post-Katrina, but for the nation. And that's why they are going to be -- use kind of seminar that tackles these issues of the economy. The mortgage crisis, your family matters, your job security, education.

Let's tackle issue number one. Let's talk about the mortgage crisis. We learned of an incredible neighborhood here in New Orleans, a couple of blocks of homes that were built especially for first-time homeowners. And we took a look around and talked to a number of people, including Brigida Reid who says, "thanks to this program called Neighborhood Development Foundation." It's a non-profit program. She learned how to stretch her income, save money and buy a piece of the American dream.

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BRIGIDA REID, HOMEOWNER: I was able to pay my bills, all of my bills off, and then get my credit up to where I -- you know, they said it would be to an advantage in order to qualify for the program. I attended the neighborhood classes, which was like -- I think it was two nights out of the week. And I think it was like a five-week program. We went to the classes. They taught you how to budget your money. How to spend money wisely.

Being a homeowner, I think it's to your advantage because this is your home. You can fix it the way you want it. For me, it was a struggle. I had to get a part-time job to make my house notice, but this was something that I wanted. So I made the sacrifice and knew that this was the one that I want to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: Brigida Reid is so thankful to be a homeowner. And we happened to catch her when she was pealing shrimp there. About to make a good big old pants, a jambalaya, really a testament to the New Orleans culture here.

Well, Fred Johnson is in charge of this program, and he's the reason in part why this neighborhood even exists. He's with me now.

And Fred, you know, what's so remarkable about this, and we heard it from Brigida is that she was a renter for a long time.

FRED JOHNSON, NEW ORLEANS NEIGHBORHOOD DEV. FDN.: Yes, ma'am.

WHITFIELD: And never really saw that that cycle was going to be broken for her, that she, too, could be a first-time homeowner. And you helped to make it happen by helping to retrain her thinking about money.

JOHNSON: Right. First of all, Fred, what I like to be clear is that the -- the process is not my process, but it's a team process. And I always like to say that there isn't any Is in team.

But we took the position years ago that said we have too many people here who pay other people's mortgages. And the problem with that was that there was not enough education involved that educated people. And put them in a mind state to stop them from precluding themselves.

Brigida represents thousands and thousands of African-American female head of households that work every day, struggle, pay rent, that's equivalent to mortgages.

WHITFIELD: And too often, and she even underscored, if you have bad credit and that was her situation. She had a lot of bills. Her credit score wasn't good. And that's a situation that most Americans are facing. That's one of the obstacles to owning a home.

So how do you clean all that up in order to save that money for that down payment for that home?

JOHNSON: Well, what we try to do is -- first of all, we try to create an environment that de-mystifies the process and put it out as simple, stupid term where people can understand. And when you can put it in a level where they can understand, it makes it much more deliverable. And that's what you do.

You make folk understand. Listen, we can help you do this. We can't do this for you. It's not a welfare program. It's a self-help program. In most cases, folk have assets that they don't know they have. And we just sit with them and show them how to pool their resources and how to get on a program and a schedule and stick to it. Now, we can't make you do what you don't want to do. This is --

WHITFIELD: There has to be that incentive.

JOHNSON: You have to want to do it. We can't do for you what you are unwilling to do for yourself.

WHITFIELD: And this really is about empowerment. Fred Johnson, that's what your program is all about. And that's what this Essence Music Festival is all about.

JOHNSON: Yes, it is.

WHITFIELD: It's not just music and entertainment. It's about empowerment, getting your finances back in check, getting your family matters back in check, job security. And the next hour, Tony, we're going to be talking about health care.

Huge disparities between health care affecting black Americans and the rest of America. We're going to be joined by two premier specialists here in New Orleans at Tulane University. They're going to join us and talk about how treating African-Americans, particularly, in this city is almost like post-war trauma. We'll delve into that.

HARRIS: Can't wait.

WHITFIELD: Very hot topic and very serious topic, coming up.

Tony?

HARRIS: Can't wait, Fred. See you next hour. Thanks.

COLLINS: He wrote the Declaration of Independence. We'll look at Thomas Jefferson's vision of religious freedom.

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COLLINS: It's child's play. Chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta leading an army of volunteers to carry out "Operation Playground."

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DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): What a day it has been in Metairie, Louisiana. Take a look behind me. That area where that playground is was just mud and sticks just few hours ago, and they've put up this playground over 200 volunteers. It is a remarkable thing. We've partnered with all these volunteers in a nonprofit kaboom as well. Take a look at how we got here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good morning!

CHILDREN: Good morning!

GUPTA: Good morning. Welcome to a very special edition of "HOUSE CALL."

CHILDREN: Three, two, one -- kaboom!

GUPTA: We want to give a special thanks to everyone who came out and helped build this playground more than 200 people. And let this be an example to you at home, as well. Get outside today and be active. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, Metairie, Louisiana.

(END VIDEOTAPE) HARRIS: A hero's welcome for a freed hostage. She returns to France after years in the Colombian juggle. Next hour.

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COLLINS: Quickly, we want to get back to the story we are telling you about, those two children that were missing in Houston. They have been found. They have been found safe. This was Southwest Houston.

We told you that police were looking for these kids after the car was stolen and the children were inside.

Apparently, it all happened at a gas station as the woman was putting air in her tires. And then, somebody came up and hopped in the truck, took off with the two children inside.

Again, those children have been found safe. And apparently, the latest information according to our affiliate there in Houston, KPRC, is that the children were left in a parking lot somewhere in Houston.

So that tells me the truck, obviously, still gone, but the kids, thank goodness, have been found safe.

HARRIS: Gas prices bubbling up this holiday weekend. No doubt you've noticed that. AAA says that you're paying an average of $4.10 for a gallon of regular. Premiums a bit over $4.51, diesel off the charts at $4.77.

Virginia Senator John Warner, I don't know if you've heard this, wants you to slow down to save gas. He's pushing for a national speed limit, possibly keeping you to 55 miles an hour on the open highways.

And another energy-saving idea, this one, from Utah. Most state workers there going to a four-day workweek to save fuel.

And they stopped whatever they were doing, jump in their cars and sped away for free gas.

Reporter Elisa Hahn of affiliate KING has this story.

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ELISA HAHN, KING CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just before the height of rush hour, the rush was on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Sherry downtown Seattle --

HAHN: A local radio station launches a free gas giveaway.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first 106 cars to show up get ten gallons of free gas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're going to go to number five right over there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I was number 27, everyone.

HAHN: And nothing was going to stop them.

How far did you drive to get here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Des Moines.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was at the beauty shop and a friend called and said they were giving free gas, so I ran down here.

HAHN: With your shower cap on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Shower -- I'm on TV? Oh, no -- yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

HAHN: As cars started lining up, the frenzy created a traffic jam of it's own.

(on camera): Just to give you an idea how long this line is, we're already two blocks away and the line keeps stretching as far as we can see.

(voice-over): But no one seemed to mind.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's fantastic. I love free gas.

HAHN: And the day before a tree-day Fourth of July holiday weekend.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a gift from God.

HAHN: A gift couldn't come at a more perfect time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every week it's a struggle, you know. It keeps getting higher and higher. And it's just perfect. It's totally made my weekend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It made my Fourth of July. Put the ribs on the grill and just keep it as steel (ph). Thanks a lot.

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