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Wildfires Torch 10,000 Acres in San Diego County; House Lost in Fire, Dog Survived; Secretary Eric Shinseki Faces Congress; Interview with Rep. Jeff Miller; Tennessee Adoption Battle; Wildfires Torch 10,000 Acres In San Diego County; Somber Memories, Tears At Dedication of 9/11 Museum

Aired May 15, 2014 - 20:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, good evening. Thanks for joining us. We begin tonight with breaking news from Southern California where wildfires are threatening thousands of homes and have burned about 10,000 acres so far. Dozens of fires raging overnight is now down to eight fires, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes, and amid the chaos people are capturing some very intense video pictures that really tell the story of what it's like across San Diego County. Take a look at this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow, there it is right there. There it is right there. (EXPLETIVE DELETED) Oh my god. Oh my god. Holy (EXPLETIVE DELETED). Oh, my god, dude. That was right there.


COOPER: Just incredible. The worst fire is in San Marcos where officials say the fire is taking so much oxygen that it is creating its own weather system. Here is video of one of the firenados that formed a swirling fireball that's indicative of the intense conditions firefighters are dealing with as they try desperately to get this control of it. Take a look at that.

Gary Tuchman reports now from San Marcos.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The scene is frightening, the sky blood red, the heat and smoke so intense it's challenging to see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're out of here.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it's blocked off.

TUCHMAN: This is a neighborhood in San Marcos, California, north of San Diego. And it's the most intense time during a wildfire. The frantic efforts to stop the flames from burning down houses. Incredibly just a short time before this video was shot there was relatively little fire in this area. When we got to San Marcos this is what we saw. Some flames but winds starting to pick up.

(On camera): The flames and the winds spread the ashes and embers and that's what makes the fire spread. This area right here 10 minutes ago nothing at all. Now we're seeing the smoke and the flames start to form. It's very likely that within the next couple of hours these trees, this vegetation will be gone.

Right down the hill from where I'm standing here in San Marcos, California, which is northeast of San Diego, this is the Cal-State San Marcos campus. It's been here for a quarter of a century. It has now been evacuated. They are hoping that the fire does not spread down there. And in this area within a five-minute walk there are hundreds of homes, businesses, condominiums and lots of people.

(Voice-over): Choppers swoop in dropping water in the 99-degree dry heat. Thirty degrees higher than normal May highs in San Diego County. But then trouble.

(On camera): The winds continue to increase. The fire is getting bigger, it's moving closer to us and moving closer to the houses in the neighborhood. The firefighters we're talking to are getting quite concerned.

KEVIN GIESY, RESIDENT: It is scariest at the moment with the fire now like 100 yards from the homes. And I worry about the embers jumping into the grass next to the homes.

TUCHMAN: It is frightening.

GIESY: It is, very.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): And then we see a bizarre spectacle of nature, a fire tornado, a whirl wind of smoke caused by the turbulence of the wind and the intense heat. Seconds after we see it the fire starts blazing in new spots.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got to get some lines around the structures.

TUCHMAN: The grave concern now as the flames are very close to the houses and we've witnessed the fire gallop hundreds of yards in just a matter of seconds. More helicopters are called in, dropping water in the smoky haze. Fire personnel on the ground make sure they have an escape route if the blaze jumps again. The team work on the ground and in the air starts to pay off, though. The blaze starts to diminish, at least where we are.

(On camera): The fire is still burning here, but it's nothing like it was before. The lush area has been destroyed but the firefighters appeared to have done a good job saving the neighborhood right next to where we're standing.

(Voice-over): An evacuation order remains in effect here, though. The situation is still way too volatile. The people who live here well aware that their neighborhood could end up looking like this one on the other side of town.


COOPER: Gary joins us now. I mean, just incredible the work these firefighters do risking their lives. Do they expect it tomorrow to be any better?

TUCHMAN: Well, tomorrow they hope that it is a lot better. Because right now it is still in the 90s, Anderson. It's very dry. It's only just after 5:00 in the afternoon. So we have this afternoon, this early evening. But then tomorrow the weather is supposed to get cooler. The humidity is supposed to go up. And by the weekend, it's supposed to be in the upper 60s, low 70s. That's typical weather. So they're hoping if they can get through today and tonight, that things will look much better tomorrow. The most important facts, Anderson, nobody has been killed, and nobody has been seriously so far.

COOPER: It's just unbelievable. Gary, appreciate the update. Stay safe.

And joining me now on the phone is San Marco Fire Chief Brett Van Wey.

Chief, thanks so much for joining us. What is the latest? And I know San Marcos was the county's number one priority today -- was the county's number one priority.

CHIEF BRETT VAN WEY, SAN MARCOS FIRE DEPARTMENT: Yes, currently an update. We are a little over a thousand acres. We still have a full evacuation in so we have not let any residents back in just because the fire started going on yesterday. Directly west with an east wind on it and it turned on us. And it went east, it's still continuing below east. And we're just doing our best to get enough resources.

We're starting to get a lot of resources from other areas since we are the priority and they've been able to move from northern California down to assist. And I think we're doing pretty well at this point.

COOPER: Do you have any sense of how much of the fire you've been able to contain so far?

VAN WEY: Like I said, I said we're predicting that we're about a thousand acres. It is a moving target as far as estimating size and we're comfortable saying that we're only about 5 percent of that contained right now, though.

COOPER: And how many -- how many homes and people have been evacuated in total, do you know?

VAN WEY: People, I'm not sure, we're estimating about 5,000 homes. And again we're going to -- we're working on people. They want to get back to their homes but we're not willing at this point to let them back in until we have quite a few power lines and safety, you know, comes first. Life safety, and we have a bunch of roads that we want to make sure that we've secured, have some of those roads cut off. So we're working on a plan to get everybody back in as soon as it's safe.

COOPER: And I mean, it's fantastic and amazing that nobody has been injured and the firefighters, how do you coordinate this on the ground? Because I mean this is such a fast moving fire with these winds changing, embers can be blown a great distance and suddenly a fire pops up. How do you, I mean, ensure the safety of your firefighters?

VAN WEY: Well, as you know we've had quite -- quite a history of wildfires in California. And it is -- I can say proudly that cooperation between the agencies with law enforcement, even the utilities, with the -- you know, the power agencies and everything else. We work under a unified command. San Marcos couldn't do this alone. We have Cal-Fire and numerous agencies all over north San Diego counties that are working together.

And it's just a -- it's just a good thing to continue to learn from what we've learned in the past and continue to get better at it.

COOPER: Well, Chief, again, thank you so much for talking to us and continue to stay safe with all of your firefighters. Thank you.

There are families who've lost everything. But for one family in Carlsbad, California, when they returned to the neighborhood and found out that their house had been completely destroyed, there was a silver lining, their dog, Rocky, amazingly had survived.

Bronson Payne and his sister Anya Bannasch join me along with their dog, Rocky.

Bronson, let me start with you. I mean, you're standing in front of your parents' house. I mean, it's just completely destroyed. We're so glad that you and your family are safe. And amazingly, your dog, Rocky, lived through the fire at the house and survived.

Did you think that Rocky was going to make it?

BRONSON PAYNE, FAMILY HOME DESTROYED, DOG SURVIVED: You know what, there was part of me that did and part of me that didn't. But all of my hopes were for the obvious that he was still alive. Man, I just -- because I was calling all the shelters up, no one had a clue where he was. And to make a long story short, I came up to the house in the south where all the firemen were. And they actually had no clue of a dog that was even in the backyard. So I was like really, so I just ran past everybody. Jumped over the fence and basically found him in the backyard.



COOPER: He must have been so excited to see you.


PAYNE: Yes. He was -- he was really happy, man, he was ecstatic.

COOPER: Do you know how he was able to make it through? I mean --

PAYNE: Yes, I mean, he -- if you can see -- if you guys can see the back he only has a couple of little --

BANNASCH: Yes, a couple of burns.

PAYNE: Singes on his hair, but besides that he's doing good.


PAYNE: Really happy to see us.

COOPER: Do you know how he was able to make it through? I mean, was he just lucky?

PAYNE: I mean, there -- no, there was actually -- I would say like a 10 by 10 cement area in the backyard where the fire itself didn't actually hit. So I am thinking obviously that he could -- hung out around there and survived. I mean, I saw some of the old footage of the other -- of the fire before I was there, a lot of smoke and you know all that stuff. It is really amazing that he lived through it.


PAYNE: I mean, it was like the smoke inhalation, all that stuff, like.

COOPER: It's incredible.


BANNASCH: We were all just screaming and crying.

COOPER: I bet.

BANNASCH: We just -- even though after all of this devastation and the house is completely on the ground we were just praying at least we could find our little dog here. My brother's dog. So just finding him has made everything better.

PAYNE: My main concern, yes.

COOPER: And Anya, I know you've lived in the area -- for a lot of years, Anya, have you ever been through anything like this before?

BANNASCH: Absolutely not, I mean, we walked up to this place and it was like a bomb went off. I mean, I can't explain to you how just horrific it was. When we were coming up the driveway we just kind of just saw it and all just broke down and started crying. I have never seen anything like it. I pray for all the other families, too, out there that are going through this right now. Because I know there are fires everywhere.

COOPER: What -- I mean, Bronson, what happens next for your family, for so many others in the area? I mean, the fire, they're still raging in some places. Where do you go from here?

PAYNE: Well, luckily we have a lot of family here that live really close by. I mean, they've been helping us 100 percent in the last -- you know, last day or so. And she lives right down the street. So -- myself, you know, my parents are here, too. We're going to be staying with her. Crashing out.

BANNASCH: Yes, they're staying with me. So -- I live about two minutes down the street. So -- it is good. At least we're all together.

COOPER: I'm also amazed how mellow Rocky is, I mean, for all that Rocky has been through he is just kind of hanging out.


PAYNE: He's -- he's taking it pretty good, right?

BANNASCH: Rocky the rock star.

PAYNE: He is probably super tired, too, like all of us, but we're all running all, like, half an hour sleep?

BANNASCH: Probably yes. Half an hour sleep. To be honest, we really --

COOPER: Well --

PAYNE: Not talking too clear, but that's probably the reason.

COOPER: Well, listen, I'm so sorry for --

PAYNE: Apparently he's tired but he's doing good.

COOPER: I am so sorry for all you've been through and I'm just so glad that, you know, most importantly you're all safe. And thank you so much for talking to us.

BANNASCH: Thank you. We appreciate it.

PAYNE: Yes. Thank you, too. Appreciate it.

COOPER: Quick reminder, make sure you set your DVRs so you can watch 360 whenever you want.

Just ahead, after stonewalling our Drew Griffin for six months, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki finally facing the questions he's been avoiding about sick veterans dying while waiting for medical care. He said he's mad as hell. Some of the senators, though, they are not buying it.

Plus, a 9-year-old girl who does not understand why she was taken from the only parents she's known and forced to live in another state with a man she never met, her biological father. Her adoption overturned because his prison term was reduced.


COOPER: "Keeping Them Honest," at the Senate hearing today Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki finally had to answer questions that he's been avoiding for six months now.

It's how long our Drew Griffin has been asking to speak with Shinseki and other VA officials about delays in medical care for six vets and other problems at VA hospitals. And here's what happened when he actually showed up at the VA hospital in Pittsburgh.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It this has not been approved by our public affairs officers, I cannot allow you in.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: I'm calling public affairs right now.


GRIFFIN: You want to call them and see if they'll come on up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't technically call them. Can you take the camera back across the street until you have authorization, please?

GRIFFIN: Hold on, I'm on the phone with them right now.


COOPER: So he ultimately left, was told to leave. That reaction became the norm through the course of Drew's multiple stories. He's repeatedly tried to get answers from VA leaders and Secretary Shinseki, tried to no avail.


GRIFFIN: Drew, this is Drew Griffin, with CNN. We are again requesting an interview with General Shinseki. I'm right outside the Department of Veterans Affairs right now on this Tuesday morning. We can do it any time today, five minutes. He can just step out the front door and we can talk to him right here, or we can come on up. So give me a call.


COOPER: And that didn't happen. Drew has been leading the reporting on this story, uncovering allegations of VA wait list, and at least 40 veterans in Phoenix dying, according to a retired VA doctor, while waiting for appointments.

Drew's reporting sparked investigation in today's hearing. The grilling that Shinseki got was brutal and to many his answers were pretty astounding, mostly for what he did not say. Drew has the details.


GRIFFIN (voice-over): Despite evidence that suggest there is a systemic, widespread wait time scandal in the VA health care system, retired Army general who runs the VA, as far as he can tell, cooking the books to hide the truth about veterans waiting for care is rare.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that in fact a problem within the health care system?

ERIC SHINSEKI, VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: I'm not aware. And other than a number of isolated cases where there is evidence of that. But the fact that there is evidence in a couple of cases behooves us to go ahead and take a thorough look.

GRIFFIN: That seemed incredible for some senators who have been reading for months now about secret lists, whistleblowers claiming they were instructed to fudge numbers and case after case of veterans dead because of delayed or denied medical treatment.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a former prosecutor, says he believes it's time to call in the FBI.

(On camera): Should some federal law enforcement from DOJ be brought in at least to preserve the evidence that is there, if it is there?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: The failure here is more than just an isolated or aberrant kind of instance or wrongdoing. It involves the system itself and involves potential criminal wrongdoing. There is more than allegations, there is evidence.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): He is right, there is, and CNN has been reporting for months on it now. In Phoenix, retired VA physician Dr. Sam Foote and other sources insist there is a secret wait list at this hospital. And administrators, he alleges, are covering it up.

(On camera): We've heard as many as 40 veterans here in Arizona, in the Phoenix area, could have died waiting for care.

DR. SAM FOOTE, RETIRED VA DOCTOR: That is correct. The number is actually higher.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): And while the Phoenix VA was reporting timely appointments on its phony lists, Dr. Foote says actual waits on the real waiting lists could last months.

FOOTE: When in reality it would have been six, in some cases 21 months.

GRIFFIN: For six months now, CNN has been reporting on veterans dying, waiting for care. CNN has tried to get an interview with the VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and his administrative staff. The secretary has refused to respond to our requests. The director of the Phoenix VA ducked us for weeks until we finally tried to demand answers as she left work.

(On camera): Director Helman, can you talk to us please?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Off the property.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Off the property.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Off the property, both of you.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): A day later, the Phoenix director Sharon Helman denied any secret wait lists but also denied knowing what the investigation was about.

SHARON HELMAN, DIRECTOR, PHOENIX VA HOSPITAL: And they don't tell us what the allegations are surrounding their investigation. I can just confirm that yes, they were here.

GRIFFIN: Helman is now on administrative leave. And many on Capitol Hill are calling on President Obama to put her boss on leave permanently. Several senators and members of the House have called for the resignation of Eric Shinseki.

Try as we might we couldn't get the secretary to answer our questions until finally he appeared before reporters after the hearing.


COOPER: And Drew, you've obviously been working now for months to try and track General Shinseki down to ask him some questions. You were finally able to do that today. Were you able to get any answers from him?

GRIFFIN: You know, Anderson, not much different was said outside to reporters than he said inside in that hearing which to me sounded like a bunch of government speak and quite frankly ignoring all the facts. Take a listen.


GRIFFIN: General, these delayed deaths have been well documented since 2011. The wait lists all across the country have been well documented in OIG and Government Accountability Office reports for a decade. Why has it taken this crisis in Phoenix for the VA and you specifically to act?

SHINSEKI: Well, we have certainly worked with the IG and the GOA, any time they come up with a report. We work to close out those actions.


GRIFFIN: Anderson, Shinseki is pleading patience, there is a very limited amount of it up here on Capitol Hill. We did also hear from the Office of Inspector General. They are fully investigating what took place in Phoenix. Trying to get to the bottom of it. But as I said the senators and many up on Capitol Hill are just growing tired of this.

COOPER: He also told the senators that he wasn't sure that the number of vets who died approaches the 40 number, right?

GRIFFIN: That is right. And there was some testimony that are in effect in the limited view that the OIG has done they have not found evidence of 40. Seventeen deaths is the number that they found but they said that's quite preliminary. They want to have a full accounting of all the many lists that they're dealing with in Phoenix. And by the way, that head of the OIG said he fully expects that he will find that there was a second list. He wasn't calling it a secret list, but a second list. Because that he says is what they found at several other VA facilities.

COOPER: All right, Drew, thanks.

Well, House lawmakers, they're also demanding answers, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs voted last week to subpoena the secretary. Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida is chairman of the committee. He joins me tonight.

Mr. Chairman, did you hear anything today from General Shinseki that would make you think he should keep his job?

REP. JEFF MILLER (R-FL), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS AFFAIRS: I can tell you this, after what I heard today I am less convinced that the appropriate leadership is in place at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I have said that I wanted to wait until the entire OIG investigation is complete. Now, unfortunately, they're telling us it may be August before it is done. But the secretary did an absolutely abysmal job of trying to re-instill faith and confidence in a very broken system.

How can a person that is in charge of the second largest agency in the federal government who has had dozens of reports from the office of inspector general appear not to know about any of them? And it tells me one of two things, either his subordinates, his leadership underneath him has not been telling him the truth or he is just woefully unprepared to lead the agency.

COOPER: You know when he was asked by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Bernie Sanders if there's also were cooking the books, Shinseki said that he is, quote, not aware of this, other than a few, quote, "isolated incidents," what was your reaction to this?

MILLER: They are cooking the books. That is what they said in the very beginning about Phoenix. They said no. They sent a team down there. They investigated. There was nothing to look at. Unfortunately, we found out it's true not only in Phoenix but it's now becoming very apparent that it's systemic throughout the entire agency.

Let me tell you, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, earlier this week, I sat down with the leadership of the hospital there. Let me tell you what this nationwide audit details. It is actually a couple of people that go in, sit down. They talk with an appointment clerk or two. They don't talk to any veterans and then they make a decision, well, everything is fine. And the fact is that unless we get an independent group to go in like the commission that I have asked the president to set up, I don't have faith that the department is able to do what it needs to do to correct the course that it is on.

COOPER: The thing I don't get is that now the president has asked the top adviser, his deputy chief of staff, to step in and help the Department of Veterans Affairs deal with these investigations by the VA inspector general and by Congress to deal with this crisis. I mean, if you have to appoint somebody from the White House to oversee your own secretary what does that say?

MILLER: I think it is total spend control. It began to get out of the control of the department itself. It was beginning to affect the White House. And I think that they wanted one of their own people sitting inside the central office trying to control the spin and certainly the words that were coming out of the agency.

COOPER: You know, I was also stunned last time we talked. You said that your committee has not gotten cooperation from the VA. It's not just, you know, us reporters not getting the answers, not getting interviews. Has that situation changed at all? I know you have to subpoena the general himself to appear before the committee. Have they been more cooperative?

MILLER: Actually, no, they're not anymore transparent today than they were a year ago. And unfortunately all they want to do is have us meet with their general counsel and negotiate. What information needs to be provided. They need to provide exactly what we asked for.

COOPER: And a number of senators noted today that they -- they think there is a lack of resources for the investigation. Potentially -- especially when you have potentially officials destroying evidence that could be critical to ongoing investigations. Some talked about the FBI stepping in. Is that something you would support?

MILLER: I think that there is a possibility that there has been some criminal activity. But this is a crisis within the second largest department within the federal government. And people are rapidly losing faith. And today the secretary did nothing in his testimony to help restore that faith.

COOPER: Chairman Jeff Miller, it's good to have you on again. Thank you, sir.

MILLER: Thank you.

COOPER: We'll continue on this story and as always you can find more on this story and others at

Up next, the battle over a 9-year-old girl whose adoption was overturned on a technicality involving her biological father's prison sentence. Now her adoptive parents are fighting to get her back.

Plus, more on tonight's the breaking news, eight wildfires still burning out of control in Southern California. We'll get an update you on the damage and the battle to contain the flames.


COOPER: Well, tonight is the eve of a crucial hearing in a custody battle that may change everything you thought you knew about adoption. Imagine being 9 years old, like Sonya, a little girl at the center of this battle, you live in a farm with a parents who've raised you since you were a toddler. They are the only mom and dad that you can remember having. Then a judge says you have to leave the parents you love and go live with a stranger, the man you never met, your biological father, who is now out of prison.

He moves you from Tennessee to Nebraska far from your adoptive parents who are now trying to get her back. That in greatly simplified form is the outline of this battle. Randi Kaye takes a look.


RANDI KAYE, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the sound of a 9-year-old girl begging to return to the only home she has ever known.

KIM: What did you say, Baby?

SONYA: I want you to come and get me.

DAVID: You just stay strong, everything is going to be OK.

KAYE: That was the last time Sonya's adoptive parents' heard voice, January 30th. Sonya had been removed from their home, her home in Tennessee the day before, but why? Sonya had been in the care of Jim and Kim Hodgins since before she was 2 and adopted by the Hodgins back in 2008.

(on camera): When the adoption became final, how thrilled were the two of you.


KAYE (voice-over): But that joy was short lived and here is why. Sonya's birth father, John McCall, is a convicted criminal. He pled guilty to transporting firearms, a felony, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Under Tennessee law his rights were automatically terminated because state law doesn't allow anyone incarcerated for more than ten years to have rights to a child under 8 years old.

But before his daughter's adoption was finalized, he cut a deal and got his sentence reduced to seven and a half years. That deal and lesser sentence allowed him to assert his parental rights and fight to reverse the adoption that was later finalized.

KIM HODGIN: She has never laid eyes on this man. He is a total stranger.

KAYE: That total stranger managed to convince the court to reconsider. In November, 2009, one year and 12 days after she had been legally adopted, Sonya's adoption was reversed. But she continued to live with the Hodgins while both sides fought for custody. Nearly five years later a juvenile court judge ruled Sonya should be returned to her biological father.

DAVE HODGIN, SONYA'S ADOPTIVE FATHER: And Sonya is crying her eyes out, just screaming bloody murder, please, Daddy, Mom, don't let them take me.

KIM HODGIN: And took her bags, that is the last that I've seen her.

KAYE: Just three hours after the judge's ruling, Sonya was gone. Dave Hodgin asked John McCall to reconsider.

DAVE HODGIN: I asked him to look in her eyes right now. Obviously she is standing right there, and she is begging and pleading and crying, and it did not matter.

KAYE: McCall's lawyer in Tennessee told us despite repeated efforts by the foster family to terminate this child's rights, his parental rights have never been successfully terminated and his daughter has now been returned to his care. This is Sonya's home now.

(on camera): We came here to Omaha, Nebraska, hoping to get John McCall to answer some of our questions about his daughter, Sonya, and his past. He had told me earlier by phone he would be open to that and to check with his lawyer.

But when I got a hold of his attorney she told me that at least for now Mr. McCall is forbidden by the Department of Children's Services to speak publicly about the case and Sonya.

(voice-over): Back to the heart wrenching phone call, the Hodgins recorded in January during their last conversation with Sonya, this is how she described her new life.

KIM HODGIN: Tell me how bad is the house.

SONYA: Dirt everywhere. I think there's even mold. There is no clean water.

KIM HODGIN: No clean water? No drinking water?

SONYA: Dirt everywhere. All over, it is so nasty. There's cigarettes everywhere.

KIM HODGIN: Is he being nice to you?


KAYE: It is a recording Dave and Kim Hodgin can't even bring themselves to listen to.

DAVE HODGIN: Anybody within their right mind would be worried. And yes, we're terribly worried.


COOPER: So tomorrow, the adoptive parents go back to court in Tennessee, what is the hearing about?

KAYE: Well, this will be the first time that the Hodgins, the adoptive parents will actually be heard. They will talk to the judge who decided to take Sonya away from them and return her back to her biological father. They are fighting for the rights of the adoptive parents. They are going to bring up a federal law put in place to protect adoptions and foster parents and children caught up in these adoptions.

So they plan to ask for a best interest hearing and then until that time, they would like to have Sonya brought back to Tennessee, to live with them. And they would like to give, John McCall, the biological dad visiting rights based on what a therapist says is appropriate. They're really looking out for her best interest they say.

COOPER: Under the state law it was not an eight-year sentence, it was seven and a half?

KAYE: Absolutely, if it was ten years, it would be different, but he got the sentence reduced.

COOPER: We'll continue to follow it. Randi Kaye, thanks very much.

Up next, the latest on the breaking news, wildfires burning in Southern California. Camp Pendleton military base as well.

Also what it is like to fight a fire from the air. Ted Rowlands rides along to see how it is done.


COOPER: The 2,600 firefighters working throughout San Diego County in California at this hour trying to get eight wild fires under control. In San Marcos, the fire is only about 5 percent contained as they burned about 1200 acres so far. Another in Carlsbad, so far a handful of homes have been destroyed in that fire which has destroyed hundreds of acres. Take a look at the video one resident captured taken shortly after the fast-moving fire began.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These people are out of there --


COOPER: A lot of roads were shutdown, others were crowded with residents trying to get away. Our Jennifer Gray joins me now live from the weather center with the latest so what kind of conditions are the firefighters up against right now?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It is very, very tough conditions. We have seen temperatures running 30 degrees above normal. Temperatures in Carlsbad should be about 70 degrees this time of year. They have been running in the mid-90s, Los Angeles should be in the mid-70s. They have been in the triple digits, 80 in Carlsbad, 77 on Saturday.

Still above normal but temperatures will be a little bit cooler. Also the winds are going to start to shift. We have been getting those strong Santa Ana winds pushing onshore. Should get more of an onshore flow as we go through the weekend. What that will do is bring up the humidity level a bit.

And bring in some moisture. That is good news for the firefighters trying to fight these fires. Still very dry, though, across Los Angeles and points to the north and west. Dry, breezy, very, very hot -- Anderson.

COOPER: And the drought has obviously been a huge concern. What is the outlook for the next couple of months because we're so early in the fire season?

GRAY: Yes, the fire season doesn't really kick off until July. We've already seen wild fires already. The state is 100 percent in severe drought. This drought monitor came out today, exceptional drought, 25 percent of the state and that is the highest category that the drought monitor will go. This is unprecedented. State of California is drier than they have ever been in history. So we could be in store for a very, very bad wildfire season.

COOPER: All right, Jennifer, appreciate the update. San Marcos mayor, Jim Desmond joins me now on the phone. Mr. Mayor, I appreciate you joining us under these very difficult conditions. I mean, what has the day been like for you, for everybody there?

MAYOR JIM DESMOND, SAN MARCOS, CALIFORNIA (via telephone): Well, it has been quite an -- an all-out effort here for all the agencies coming together here in the city of San Marcos. They are going out to the safety personnel and San Marcos firefighters protected on the ground and the sheriffs in their evacuation efforts. We have neighboring cities, their fire personnel here as well as Cal-Fire.

We even got the Marines and their helicopters coming in with the aerial assaults on the fires. We have the Red Cross and citizen volunteers. Really coming together with the big collaborative effort trying to get through this thing.

COOPER: And thank goodness, no fatalities, do you have a sense of the scope of the damage?

DESMOND: Well, we have almost a thousand acres. There is a different amount between 800 and 1200 acres have been damaged. Within the city we have only lost one home with that. There are three other homes just outside the city that were also lost. With that amount of fire we're just lucky we had the shifting winds and temperatures and the dry foliage. And it kind of made for the perfect fire storm and we hope in the next couple of days to get some relief.

COOPER: Do you know what caused this fire yet?

DESMOND: No, we don't really have a sense of what exactly sparked it. The conditions, unfortunately in Southern California have just been ripe with the large winds, the Santa Ana winds and we have been very, very dry. All the foliage has been very dry. And just the perfect storm, the elements to create this thing today. Actually it was smoldering from yesterday, but it caught again.

COOPER: And you talk about all the different agencies that are involved and coordinating together. Is there anything in terms of resources or agencies that you don't have? DESMOND: You know, we really have had great outpouring from the neighboring communities, I just back from the red court cross evacuation center at one of our high schools. And there are stacks and stacks and stacks of water. There are even people bringing in water and granola bars from their homes for the people who have not evacuated. We have 87,000, and most of them are evacuated. It is pretty dramatic.

COOPER: And we just talked to Jennifer Gray. The fire season has not really even begun. It is only May and we're seeing these kind of firings. How do you plan for the next couple of months?

DESMOND: Well, basically you know this is a great education for everybody to clear away the brush away from their homes and things like that. It is really kind of surreal, looking today, back in the fire area. There is this burned hillside. And there are these homes, islands of homes that are protected. You can tell those are the ones that went through the effort, made the effort to keep it in a protectable space around their homes and didn't have trees right up against their houses and things like that. It is more of an education and making people aware of it. There is a huge fire, no injuries and just one loss of one house, the firefighters and everybody has been exemplary.

COOPER: Yes, it certainly seems that way. Mayor Desmond, appreciate your time and hope for everybody in their community. Up next, fighting fire from the air.


COOPER: Take a look at this amazing video again from San Diego County where firefighters are working against eight wildfires.

You can see the helicopter there coming into frame. Part of the fight against these fires taking place in the air. Ted Rowlands rode along during a training exercise to get a sense and see what it is actually like for the firefighters as they aim at targets on the ground.


TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Inside the cockpit of a BAE-146 air tanker, firefighter pilots, Brian Hails and Peter Bell prepare for takeoff.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, clear right. Clear left, clear right.

ROWLANDS: During the fire, this plane is capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of retardant from as low as 150 feet above the flames. I'm only allowed to ride along because this is a training flight, a water drop for Ryan's annual certification that target just to the right of our camera crew on the ground. Neptune Aviation in Montana is one of a handful of U.S. air taker companies. Planes and crews are staged at airports throughout the Western United States and could be in the air in minutes after getting a call.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is critical to get there before it gets big. ROWLANDS: Once they get there, the adrenalin kicks in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are just so hyper-focused on what you're doing. It is very coordinated chaos when you're own a fire.

ROWLANDS: The largest air tanker in the world is this converted DC-10 which can drop an incredible 12,000 gallons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now, the fire that could call us is in West Texas.

ROWLANDS: We caught up with the plane, and the man who helped design it at the interagency fire in Phoenix.

(on camera): Isn't this too big to really get close to the fire?

RICK HATTON, PRESIDENT, 10 TANKER: That's an excellent question and it's a common misperception.

ROWLANDS (voice-over): Hatton said the DC-10 is the ultimate firefighting aircraft because it carries four times more retardant than any other plane. The tank is mounted to the bottom of the plane. The white you see are two doors controlled from the cockpit. Meanwhile, the area where 380 passengers used to sit has been completely gutted to help the pilots maneuverability.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no room for fear.

ROWLANDS: But there is danger over the years. There have been several accidents including this 2000 C-130 crash in California that claimed three lives. Then two years ago, pilots, Todd Thomkins and his partner died when the P2 tanker they were flying crashed along the Utah border.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When we lose people it is very, very difficult.

ROWLANDS: While there are some critics that believe tankers are not too only too dangerous but too expensive, the men and women who maintain risking their lives on these planes believe their role is critical.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is like artillery or air in a war. It is not the only thing you need, but it is a vital part of a coordinated effort.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, our ultimate goal is to put out fire and our little piece of that pie, that is what I enjoy is knowing we help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Speed checks. Clear to land.


COOPER: Ted Rowlands joins me from Carlsbad, California. It has been really bad there in the last 24 hours, we're looking at images now from Carlsbad. What is it like there now? ROWLANDS: Well, things have gotten much better, Anderson, the winds died down. Things got better here, and in Escondido, which we talked about earlier, the bottom line, this is what is left. These homes here in Carlsbad, completely devastated. The homeowners looking for what they can.

COOPER: So sad. Ted Rowlands, appreciate it. We'll be right back.


COOPER: An emotional day, ground zero here in New York, President Obama, 9/11 families and first responders were all on hand today for the dedication of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. On display, more than 12,000 objects on that day. The museum opens to the public. We want to leave you with highlights from the ceremony.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: It is an honor for us to join in your remembrance, to recall and to reflect. But above all to reaffirm the true spirit of 9/11. Love, compassion, sacrifice, and to enshrine it forever in the heart of our nation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Walking through this museum can be difficult at times, but it is impossible to leave without feeling inspired. Each story here beats with a human heart, which if we allow it, touches our own.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I dedicate this song to my late husband, Calvin Joseph Gooding.

RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR: We will never understand why one person escaped and another didn't. How random it all seems and how powerless makes us all feel. But what this museum does is allow us to see that we absolutely can affect each other's lives by what we do at a time of crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If through our rescue many of us join the rescue and recovery teams at ground zero to do for others what had been done for us we had to. We had come together at ground zero to help each other out. There was a real sense of caring for one another. This is something we should never forget and never stop doing.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Like the great wall and bed rock that embrace us today, nothing can ever break us. Nothing can change who we are as Americans.


COOPER: Amazing grace, and a remarkable place to visit. Stay with CNN throughout the night for continuing coverage of the Southern California wildfires. I'll see you again at 11:00 p.m. Eastern, another edition of 360. "CNN TONIGHT" starts now.