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THE SITUATION ROOM

Donald Sterling Fights Back?; California Wildfires

Aired May 16, 2014 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: He's threatening a lawsuit, but will that allow the L.A. Clippers' owner to keep the team?

And new confusion and finger-pointing in the Flight 370 mystery. Who's holding on to critical satellite tracking data and keeping it from the public?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get to the breaking news this hour. A fiery nightmare is dragging on for a fourth horrific day in Southern California. At least five wildfires are burning right now. Several of them are still very active and very dangerous; 31 square miles of land has already been scorched. More than 1,000 firefighters are battling the most threatening blaze. That doubled in size overnight.

That fire is keeping 11,000 people away from their homes right now. And the first death possibly linked to the fires has been reported.

Our correspondents are in the fire zone. We're tracking the heat, the winds in CNN's Severe Weather Center.

Let's go first, though, to CNN's Ted Rowlands. He's in Escondido, California. That's the main focus of the fire disaster right now.

What's the very latest where you are, Ted?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the winds picked up a few hours ago, which is causing some issues. More water drops have been ensuing because of it.

Five fires are burning throughout San Diego County. This one is one of the most serious ones, the one in Escondido, San Marcos area. It ripped through this area and it is still going strong.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS (voice-over): Al Said was in his backyard when a wall of black smoke and flames were coming straight for his house.

AL SAID, FIRE VICTIM: The first flame that I saw was a neighbor's tree that just went poof.

ROWLANDS: Thinking he was about to lose his home, Said says he was getting ready to leave when firefighters pulled up in three engines.

SAID: They were here. And I opened up gates for them, the back gate area to make it easier for them. And, quite frankly, I just said, guys, save my house if you can. And, whew, they did.

ROWLANDS: The home beside Said was lost. Everyone got out OK. When you consider the wall of flames, which included those mini- tornado-like spirals, it's amazing that more homes were not lost.

CAPT. MIKE MOHLER, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROSECUTION: Those firenadoes or fire tornadoes that you're looking at is an example of the critical fire weather and the explosive fire growth that we're seeing out here. Our fuel conditions are at a critical level. And we're in May. These are levels that we normally wouldn't see until August, September.

ROWLANDS: Time-lapse video shows the San Marcos fire going from bad worse in minutes. So far, it has scorched 3,000 acres and still going.

Meanwhile, there are questions on what or who might have started the fires.

BILL HORN, SAN DIEGO COUNTY SUPERVISOR: I just have my suspicions. It's six in a day. Even though the conditions would allow for that, usually when a fire spreads, it will spread by its own embers or it will spread close to one another. That -- that didn't happen here.

ROWLANDS: A 19-year-old man is one of two teens arrested for starting two small brushfires. As of now, though, neither has been linked to the larger blazes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS: And, Wolf, that's a big concern for people living here. If, indeed, these fires were started by an arsonist or arsonists, there's a real concern after the weather gets better this weekend and gets worse down the line that they could be going through this again -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is a real serious problem, Ted. Thank you.

San Marcos residents were shocked how quickly the fire spread across some of those bone-dry neighborhoods, swallowing up homes.

Our national correspondent, Gary Tuchman, is in San Marcos for us.

Gary, you're at the ruins of a house we saw burning live during our coverage yesterday. How sad this whole story is, but give us the very latest from your location. GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I will.

Not only are we in San Marcos. We're about 500 feet above San Marcos on a hilltop. And we have a great vantage point of another fire down there. That's Camp Pendleton to our west and that fire is still active, one of several fires still burning here.

But where I'm standing right now on this hilltop, yesterday when we were talking to you on your program, we showed fire blazing right where I'm standing. It was an intense blaze. And this is what's happened. This is the house that we saw on the air that caught fire. We will tell you, the most important thing, the family that lived here had evacuated. Nobody was hurt.

You can see it is still white hot, the wreckage, of this million- dollar home, beautiful home, beautiful neighborhood. And right over here, if you take a look, talking about white hot, it is still smoking. And I can look under here and I still see flames under this area right here. So it shows you how hot it is. Literally, I would never touch this with my bare hand. You would burn your hand. That's how hot it is.

I touched it earlier with a glove. But it's still hot. The winds are picking up as we speak. The humidity is higher. The temperatures are lower than yesterday. But the winds are picking up this afternoon, so they're very concerned, firefighters all over northern San Diego County, where we are, about the possibility of flames being rekindled.

And we have seen some flames since we have been standing here rekindling slightly. And that's why firefighters are on the scene. One interesting thing we can tell you, Wolf, is just like a tornado, when a tornado destroys one house, but leaves another one standing nearby, the street that we're standing on, on this hilltop, every other house is fine, but this house utterly destroyed. The good news, nobody killed, nobody hurt -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the people who lived there, have they been back? Have they seen this destruction?

TUCHMAN: The people who lived here came back. They saw their house was destroyed. They were obviously devastated, but, of course, grateful that they weren't in the house when this all happened. Everyone knows this area is vulnerable to brushfires, Wolf. And that's why they know to get out when they get the evacuation order.

BLITZER: They got to heed those orders when they come in. All right, Gary, thanks very, very much.

Firefighters have been counting on milder winds, lower temperatures today, as they struggle to try to make some progress against these numerous blazes.

(WEATHER UPDATE)

BLITZER: Just a little while ago, the San Diego County district attorney announced the first arson charge in connection with these wildfires.

Joining us now on the phone, the sheriff of San Diego County, Bill Gore.

Sheriff Gore, thanks very much for joining us.

Give us the latest on that suspicion of arson. What do we -- what do you know?

BILL GORE, SAN DIEGO COUNTY SHERIFF: Well, Wolf, thanks, first of all, for having me on and getting the word out to all your viewers.

You know, we share the suspicions of a lot of people when you have nine separate fires started in the course of two days, but we can't let that suspicion and speculation take the place of really hard facts. So, as soon as we could get into those fire areas, we started parallel arson investigations at each one of these, working with San Diego Police Department arson investigators, the sheriff's department arson investigators and the various fire agencies, collaborative efforts, sharing information, to try to determine -- first of all, we have to determine the origin of the fires, and then more importantly the cause.

And that's the more difficult part of any arson investigation. We have not -- the people that have been arrested so far, we have not tied in, there's no indication that they're tied in to any of these other nine blazes that we have had around San Diego County, at this point anyway.

BLITZER: We know that some people, even after they get an order to evacuate, they resist. They don't want to leave their homes. For one thing, they're afraid of looters. Some looting has been going on. How serious of a problem, Sheriff, is this?

GORE: No, what we have -- what I have continually told the people here in San Diego County is that when you're told to evacuate, evacuate.

Get out of that neighborhood. It's for your safety. And it is for the safety of peace officers, sheriff's deputies, cops that need to be able to get into those neighborhoods and more importantly the firefighters. We don't want them running into people and when they have to go into backyards and maybe put down those fires.

I have -- just in the San Marcos area, I have almost 200 deputies in there to secure those neighborhoods, make sure there are no looters, there is no vandalism and you will return hopefully to a safe neighborhood and your home will be safe and you will be safe, more importantly.

So most the people in San Diego in the fire areas have obeyed the requests and the orders to evacuate, although we can't force them. We have had really good compliance because they know there's enough law enforcement to keep those neighborhoods safe.

BLITZER: Has there been any looting going on, as far as you know, sheriff?

GORE: We had one case last night. In fact, San Diego Police Department working with the Escondido Police Department made an arrest of a person in Escondido in an evacuated neighborhood clearly didn't belong there, stopped by police, questioned, found out he had prior arrest records, and he was arrested for being in the evacuated area. He had not had a chance to do any vandalism or loot anything, but that's the one arrest that I know of.

BLITZER: Quickly, Sheriff, what are your experts telling you? Should we expect more of these fires in the coming weeks and months?

GORE: Well, I tell you, well, you were talking about the conditions, and they are unprecedented. Usually, our fire season's in September/October after a very dry summer.

To have this in May is really unusual. There's so much fuel out there. The grasses that we have on our mountainside is just like kindling and it can be set off by a variety of things, you know, unfortunately, a lot of times, lightning strikes if you have a thunderstorm, catalytic converters on cars, a careless cigarette thrown out of a car window. It doesn't take much to ignite this kind of fire.

We're keeping our fingers crossed and preparing, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

BLITZER: Good luck, Sheriff, Sheriff Bill Gore of San Diego County. We're hoping certainly for the best for everyone in that dangerous zone.

We're going to have a lot more on the wildfire disaster coming up, but there's another major story we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

The L.A. Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, now officially fighting his punishment for making those racist remarks. CNN has learned Sterling has hired a new lawyer who sent a defiant letter to the NBA rejecting Sterling's lifetime ban, refusing to pay his $2.5 million fine. That's a maximum allowed by the NBA, the source now saying Sterling is also threatening to sue the league if it doesn't back down.

Earlier this week, Sterling suggested his penalty was tough, but he also suggested it might be fair. Listen to what he told Anderson Cooper in an exclusive interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD STERLING, OWNER, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: I think it's a little bit harsh, you know, but...

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Which part of it?

STERLING: What is the league supposed to do? They're in a storm. And a stupid owner has created all these problems. They have to show that they're not going to stand for that. The league won't stand for that. They won't stand for racism. I'm telling you. And I did it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, pretty blunt talk, at least in that part of the interview.

Let's bring in senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, our CNN anchor Don Lemon, our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, and our commentator L.Z. Granderson.

If he says he did it, Jeffrey, you're the legal analyst. Is he admitting guilt? Is he pleading guilty?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, let me parse that like a lawyer. What his lawyer would say, I'm certain...

(CROSSTALK)

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Here we go.

TOOBIN: ... is that he apologizes for generally offensive conduct, generally an offensive statement, but what he said is not a violation of the NBA constitution and thus is not grounds to take his franchise away. That's certainly the way a lawyer would parse that.

Whether anybody believes that is a separate question, but that's certainly the way they're analyzing it.

BLITZER: The argument that has made, Don, against him, and I have heard this from sources close to the NBA repeatedly, is that, yes, there is an NBA constitution, and it stipulates part of the constitution that the owners have to agree to all the various agreements they have made in order to get that franchise.

And over the years, going back 30 years, including within the last decade, Donald Sterling signed various agreements with the NBA that includes -- includes those so-called morals clauses that you can't do anything that's going to embarrass the NBA. As a result, they say they have the legal standing to go ahead and get rid of him.

LEMON: Not even just embarrass, Wolf, but bring negative light on to the franchise which he owns and then thus the NBA as well. And there's no doubt that he has done that.

And that's what people don't really understand, especially people in the general public. And they will say, in what world can you take someone's, you know, team away from them or property just because they are something?

When you have a contract or a number of contracts that have different clauses, Jeffrey, and you know this, you have to abide by those. And if you don't abide by those, then the consequences are they can take it away from you or you have to pay for whatever consequence it is. So, they can punish you, they can fine you, they can do whatever, which they have done.

And then the ultimate end is that they will take this franchise away from him. Yes, he agreed to something. He broke it.

BLITZER: Suzanne...

LEMON: End of story.

BLITZER: Suzanne, you have been looking at his -- talking to experts about this new legal strategy he's putting forward now. What are you hear?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know Maxwell Blecher, he is really one of the top lawyers when it comes to antitrust. This is a real force to be reckoned with.

He took on the NFL and he actually beat them here. He's very serious about this, the case that he's setting up. And the first thing that they're saying is, look, they don't believe that he violated the NBA constitution, that he didn't do anything wrong, that they can't find anywhere in what he believes is his private personal conversation that took place that would violate that NBA constitution.

He doesn't specifically talk about Article 13-D, which the NBA addresses. And then the other thing that this letter and his attorney is arguing here is that he doesn't think he got due process, that, you know, there wasn't a real formal process by which -- it was a four-day investigation with the NBA. They did talk to him. They interviewed him.

But they don't think that that was enough time to really get to the point where he would have this kind of punishment, this kind of fine. So they are showing that they're serious about it. There are some people who say, look, they have seen this and they think it's what they call peacocking, which is simply like, you know, it's an empty threat.

It's like, you're going to take away my team, well, look, this is what's going to happen, this is what's going to follow.

BLITZER: What do you think, L.Z.?

L.Z. GRANDERSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, when the initial press conference was had by commissioner Silver and he said that this -- the punishment was not reflective of his past behavior, only based upon those comments, I thought that was a mistake.

That might not have been a mistake in terms of the legal aspect of it, but in terms of public opinion, because you still do have a group of people who are saying this man should not lose his franchise based upon possibly an illegally taped conversation, to which there's -- you know, you can certainly argue that right.

But the fact is, is that they have 30-plus years of documented examples of racist behavior that certainly violated the moral clause of their constitution, in which case I felt that if commissioner Silver had said that during the initial press conference, we'd probably be having a different conversation in the general public.

Right now, I think people just are disgusted by him, but if they really knew how long he didn't just say things, but did things that kept people out of safe neighborhoods and kept kids out of good schools because of housing discrimination, I think this would probably be moving along a lot lift swifter.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Hold on, one at a time.

Jeffrey, just go ahead, respond to what we just heard from L.Z.

TOOBIN: Well, I think problem with what L.Z. said is that if you look at the actual facts on the record, you have a lawsuit charging him by the federal government with discrimination that was settled without an admission that he did anything wrong and he was sued by Elgin Baylor for racial discrimination, and Sterling won that case.

LEMON: And won, and won.

LEMON: So -- and if they had evidence of -- true evidence of racial discrimination, the question for the NBA would have been, well, what took you so long?

So I think Silver made the only decision available to him, in which he said, this is only about these comments, and, frankly, I think that's enough. He's not...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Does it matter how they got the -- how it became public?

I think it doesn't matter how it became public. It is public now. It's already out in the public, right, Jeffrey? So...

TOOBIN: Absolutely.

LEMON: ... the NBA is not concerned with how the tapes were acquired. That's something for Donald Sterling to deal with in a court of law. It's already out as far as they're concerned. It doesn't matter to them how it got out.

TOOBIN: That's right. And also people are throwing around free speech and First Amendment.

LEMON: It's not a free speech...

TOOBIN: The First Amendment applies against the government. The government can't punish you for saying stupid things, but, you know, we work for CNN. If we say things publicly that embarrass the company or are totally inappropriate, we can get fired. That's what happens when you're a public figure. And it applies to Donald Sterling as well. And that's why they're taking it away from him.

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: L.Z., very quickly to you. That $2.5 million fine the NBA wants from Sterling, if he doesn't pay, can they just deduct $2.5 million from revenue, from media revenue, TV rights, for example, that were supposed to go to the Clippers and say we're not going to give you that $2.5 million?

GRANDERSON: Well, I certainly think that just leads to more litigation if they try to do it that way.

I think the best thing that the Clippers -- that the league can do is continue to press in the manner in which they have been pressing. But I just want to just touch based quickly on what, you know, Jeffrey said earlier about things being settled out of court.

That might be true, but the NBA also has a good history of punishing players who weren't formally charged legally, but because it was an embarrassment, because it looked bad, they still found ways to punish players even though it didn't go through in court.

So, there's a precedence in the league for finding based solely upon optics. And I think there's 30 years of optics there that was worth including in punishment of Mr. Sterling and not just based upon comments that were taped recently.

BLITZER: L.Z. Granderson, Don Lemon, Jeffrey Toobin, Suzanne Malveaux, good discussion. Thanks very much.

This important programming note to our viewers. Later tonight, please be sure to watch Donald Sterling, Magic Johnson, the exclusive back-to-back interviews with our own Anderson Cooper. It's all in an "A.C. 360" special report entitled "Sex, Lies & Basketball," 9:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

Still ahead, we're going to bring you the newest information, the most dramatic pictures we're getting from the fire zone as they come into THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, it could answer the question, are searchers looking in the right place for Flight 370? There's conflicting information right now about who's keeping that raw satellite data under wraps.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's another element of mystery surrounding Flight 370 right now. We're hearing conflicting accounts about who has the satellite data that's been pivotal in trying to figure out the plane's flight path.

Passengers' families have been demanding that information be released amid growing questions about whether searchers are looking in the right place at all.

Our experts are with us to discuss this new controversy.

Let's bring in aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, first for the very latest -- Rene. RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know this raw data is critical, I mean, millions of dollars in resources sent to search a specific area all based on this data.

But only a select group has seen it with their own eyes and that is part of the second mystery unraveling here. Why can't anyone else examine it? And why is the Malaysian government and the company behind the data dodging responsibility for its release?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH (voice-over): The answer to where Malaysia Airlines 370 may be located appears to be buried in data, data that's being held close to the vest.

SARAH BAJC, PARTNER OF MISSING PASSENGER: The world has the right to have that data released to third parties.

MARSH: The raw data, a handful of pages detailing satellite connections the plane made, has not been publicly released. The Malaysian government and Inmarsat, the company behind the data, are punting the responsibility of who should release it.

HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN TRANSPORT MINISTER: The raw data is within Inmarsat, not with Malaysia, not with Australia, not with MAS.

So, if there's request for this raw data to be made available to the public, it must be made to Inmarsat.

CHRIS MCLAUGHLIN, INMARSAT: It's not our data. The data belongs to the Malaysian authorities. It's not something Inmarsat can release.

MARSH: After Flight 370 took off, it checked with a satellite about once an hour. The angle of those transmissions led to these two arcs where the plane could have been, but which one?

(on camera): Similar to how the change in sound of a train can tell you if it's coming towards you or moving away from you, frequency shifts in satellite connections helped engineers track the plane.

(voice-over): Measured on a graph, it looks like this, a predicted track to the north and one to the South. MH370's actual satellite connections most closely matched the path to the south. And that's where the focus remains. It's this data that both sides say only the other can release.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: I don't know who to believe, but isn't it awful that it's quite evident somebody is lying here? Somebody is lying. We're talking about something that involves a missing airliner now 70 days, lives lost, families shattered. And there's people lying about this. This is absolutely reprehensible.

MARSH: But some experts say a wide release of the raw data would do more harm than good. LES ABEND, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It gets to the point where too many cooks spoil the brew. There are "experts" -- quote, unquote -- out there that have their own theories and it gets to a certain point where you could be chasing your own tail.

MARSH: Experts who have seen the data are apparently confident enough to return to search where it led them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: Well, Inmarsat cannot release the data because it belongs to a separate contracting company, so there are some proprietary issues, and under international rules, they aren't allowed to release it. But the country leading the investigation can. And that's Malaysia.

So, it makes absolutely no sense, Wolf, when Malaysia's transport minister is calling on Inmarsat to release the data, when under the rules it's so crystal clear they don't have the authority to do it.

BLITZER: It's a fascinating subject.

I want to go a little bit more in-depth. Rene, stay with us.

I want to bring in our aviation analyst Miles O'Brien. You saw him in Rene's piece there. Peter Goelz also joining us.

Miles, first to you. What's your suspicion? Who has the satellite data? Why isn't it being released?

O'BRIEN: I suspect the Malaysians do have the information, as Inmarsat suggests, but I'm just not in a position to decide who's telling the unvarnished truth here.

The question I have to ask is, why is there some apparent stalling here? It seems to me there's two ways to look at this. There is an investigation under way as to what happened on that airplane. And we all understand that's a sensitive thing, as it's quite possible there was some sort of human input in that, and it was a deliberate act, if you will.

But the separate issue is the search. There's still a search. And this is talking -- we're talking strictly about finding this airplane, and that should be treated in an entirely different way, and the information doesn't have to be as closely guarded, in my opinion. As a matter of fact, to hold it back at this juncture, when the whole world wants to know where this aircraft is, and in particular those families do, it's just hard for many people to stomach.

BLITZER: Well, let me let Peter Goelz in. You're a former NTSB managing director. What's your take on this controversy?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, the Malaysians have mishandled the structure of this investigation from the very first week. The idea of having others participating -- the Brits, the U.S., the Chinese -- that's to give credibility to a broader effort. They have completely lost the credibility of the public and the families. They have the control, the power to release this data. They should do it.

BLITZER: So you believe that Inmarsat gave it to Malaysia, but for some reason Malaysia is not willing to release the data? They say it's up to Inmarsat.

GOELZ: Of course they gave it to the investigators. The Brits and the U.S. looked at that data, double checked the Inmarsat computations, and agreed with it. And the other issue is, 70 days, one report. Unacceptable.

BLITZER: A lot of the family members, Rene, you know this, that's why this is so sensitive, why we're talking about it. They don't believe the searchers are even looking in the right place. They're still holding out hope against hope that maybe their loved ones may be alive, maybe that plane landed on the ground someplace, and the folks on the plane, 239 people who are missing, may still be alive. So they want that information. That's why these family members are so passionate.

MARSH: They do. And they want to essentially launch their own investigation, because they are raising questions about how valid is this data? Is it right? Did they miss something? Were mistakes made? They want to see for themselves. And the reason why they want to see for themselves is because so far this data hasn't turned up the plane. And so that's an issue.

Going back to, you know, this pointing of fingers essentially between Malaysia and Inmarsat, I mean, if you listen very carefully to what the transport minister said, he says, "We don't have the data and it's up to Inmarsat to release it." Well, that's peculiar: they don't have the data.

I think at the end of the day -- this is just my own personal opinion -- it's going to turn out that it's all about how you ask the question. So perhaps the Malaysian government does not have the data, but perhaps the investigative team in Malaysia has the data. If you don't ask the question the right way, maybe you won't get the answer that you're looking for. We've seen that in the past.

BLITZER: Miles, you want to weigh in, because I know you...?

O'BRIEN: You know, if they're parsing language like that, given the circumstances, shame on them.

You know, I'd like to propose one thing. And this is on the same vain. Why don't the Malaysians fuel up a 777 and fly this route that everyone is suggesting is the route it flew, and double check all these Inmarsat calculations?

You know, in the case of TWA-800, in the case of U.S. Air 427, the case of American Eagle 4184, the NTSB and the FAA all staged test flights afterward when it got to the point that they couldn't figure out the mystery. I think it's time to stage a test flight here and see if all this Inmarsat data does, in fact, check out. And I'm not saying let's let Inmarsat and Malaysia off the hooks. They need to put the cards on the table. And believe me: there's a host of information that a lot of experts out there are thirsting for to figure out what happened.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Peter, seems to make a lot of sense to me. Do a test flight.

GOELZ: Right. Miles is flight. We did that with TWA-800. We can do it again. They did paper checks on six other flights. They look good. But they need to be more open. This is 70 days.

BLITZER: Yes. They certainly do. Peter Goelz, Rene Marsh, Miles O'Brien. Guys, thanks very much. We're going to continue to watch this story for our viewers.

This is important programming note. Tonight "CROSSFIRE" won't be seen to we can continue to bring you several developing stories we're working here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're keeping our eyes on the fires burning across the San Diego area in California. Thousands of people can't go home right now. Just a little while ago, authorities said they've arrested one looter in the evacuated area.

Up next, month in, month out. Part of your electric bill is going to pay for a federal project. Guess what? That federal project simply doesn't exist. Now a major change is on the way.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news out of Southern California right now. An historic wildfire emergency. At least five fires are burning across San Diego County.

The local district attorney announced the first arson charge in connection with this disaster just a little while ago. A new evacuation order was issued today at the Camp Pendleton Marine base where a third wildfire erupted.

Over the last several days, evacuation orders have now gone out to 167,000 people in the San Diego County area as the fires spread.

Other news we're following. Every time you pay your electric bill, you're chipping in a few cents for a federal project -- get this -- a federal project that simply does not exist. So finally the government is going to stop taking your money, but don't expect to get any of it back.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM with a closer look. And when I heard about this, it's pretty shocking, but explain.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's very shocking, Wolf. Today is the day the federal government complies with a court order and stops taking money from consumers to pay for a nonexistent nuclear waste site.

The government has been collecting pennies for 30 years, but that money has piled almost as high as the nuclear waste.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): If the lights in your home are powered by one of these, you've been paying Uncle Sam every month for a nuclear waste dump that's never been built.

GREG WHITE, MICHIGAN PUBLIC SERVICES COMMISSION: When you're paying for something, when you're paying a tax or a fee, you should be getting something for what you're paying for. So, there's a consumer rip-off side to this.

JOHNS: It started so small you probably didn't even notice. On average, that fee was less than 20 cents a month, but those tiny payments mushroomed: $750 million a year for 30 years plus interest. A grand total so far of more than $40 billion. And what has the public gotten for it? Nothing.

Consumers have been paying these fees since 1983 with the expectation that a permanent nuclear waste site would be built. The closest the U.S. ever got to a nuclear waste dump was Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Some money from the disposal fund was used for that, but when Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada became majority leader, he made it a priority to kill the project in his home state, and he did it with the help of the Obama administration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A few comments before I begin.

JOHNS: A top Republican on the House Energy Committee says the Yucca Mountain plan should go forward.

REP. JOHN SHIMKUS (R), ILLINOIS: We would like the administration just to comply with the law and keep moving forward with Yucca Mountain, hence then you would have a reason to collect the fee. The fee is very important, because it does all the scientific research and pays for, then, the further development and the infrastructure needed.

JOHNS: Nobody even knows how much a nuclear waste disposal dump would cost. The Department of Energy once estimated it's trillions of dollars, a pure guess recently ridiculed by a federal appeals court, which compared the estimate to a scene in the Broadway musical and movie "Chicago," when a lawyer sings about conjuring up a case out of nothing.

RICHARD GERE, ACTOR (singing): Razzle-dazzle them, and they'll never catch lies.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: And regardless of what the court may think about the government's cost projections, these fees can be reinstated at a later date, but not until the government restarts the nuclear waste disposal program. And there's simply no timetable on that.

BLITZER: So the $40 billion as of now, just -- what's going to happen to it?

JOHNS: Right. It sits there in a fund, and they wait until they find a place to put up a new nuclear disposal site.

BLITZER: Does it get interest or...?

JOHNS: It does get interest, about $2 billion a year. But it's just going to sit there.

BLITZER: It's going to sit there until they figure it out. All right, Joe. Good report. Thanks very much, Joe, for it.

We're going to have more on the California fires coming up in a little bit here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thousands of people still can't go home. Others are facing utter devastation.

But up next, some breaking news. We have huge fallout in a story you first saw here on CNN. And now a top official at the Department of Veterans Affairs is on his way out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's breaking news in a widening scandal first revealed right here on CNN.

A top official over at the Department of Veterans Affairs is now on his way out after CNN investigations revealed some veterans died because they were kept on secret waiting lists instead of getting treatment.

Let's go to our White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski. She's got the very latest -- Michelle.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

So, the White House put out a statement saying the president supports this resignation although nobody's really come out and spelled out why exactly this V.A. undersecretary, Dr. Robert Petzel, is stepping down. It is the first resignation we've seen after the scandal really broke here on CNN. It comes one day after he testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

But he was about to retire anyway this year. That's why some are already calling foul on this move.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you solemnly swear --

KOSINSKI (voice-over): V.A. undersecretary for health, Robert Petzel, is now stepping down one day after he told a senate committee hearing on the deaths and delays at V.A. hospitals this. DR. ROBERT PETZEL, VA UNDER SECRETARY FOR HEALTH: We have worked very hard, Senator Isaacson, to root out these inappropriate uses of the scheduling system and these abuses. It's absolutely inexcusable.

KOSINSKI: But Petzel was already set to retire and faced tough questions even a year ago over backlogs, delays, and deaths at V.A. hospitals in Georgia and Pittsburgh. That is when the administration started looking for his successor.

So, the resignation now put in quotes in the statement from Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, isn't sitting well. Miller, who criticized Petzel before, calls this the "pinnacle of disingenuous political double speak. Just doesn't pass the smell test", and calls the V.A. "desperate to get ahead of delays in care crisis that is growing by the day. Yet apparently unwilling to take substantive actions to hold any of its leaders accountable for negligence that harms veterans."

Also, veterans groups, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, are now calling for, quote, "real action." "We don't need the V.A. to find a scapegoat. We need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the V.A."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOSINSKI: There have also been calls for the V.A. Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down. And we asked the White House, you know, even just if you look at the way this all emerged, through the press over time, doesn't that in itself indicate a shortfall of leadership there? But they said they didn't want to pass judgment until the investigation was over, although they did again express confidence in Shinseki and listed his successes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski at the White House -- thanks for that news.

Just ahead, the latest on the wildfires that are keeping 11,000 people out of their homes.

Also, hospitals now are preparing for a frightening and little known disease.

But, first, this "Impact Your World" report on how a big name entertainer is taking on a disease that threatened to derail his career.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Nick Cannon seems to be one of the hardest working guys in show business. The "America's Got Talent" host is also a producer, musician, husband to Mariah Carey, and father of twins.

NICK CANNON, ENTERTAINER: It is an interesting juggle and transition. But, you know, I got ahold of it.

CUOMO: When he was diagnosed with lupus in 2012, he took it in stride.

CANNON: I took my test and turned it into a testimony. I'm in this fight with you, and we can get through it.

CUOMO: More than a million and a half Americans have lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks healthy tissue. It has no known cause or cure.

Cannon found out he had lupus when his kidneys failed while on vacation.

CANNON: It was really scary at the beginning. It sounds like just turn the cameras on me, to see where this takes us.

How did I get here?

CUOMO: Those cameras led Cannon to film what he calls his "NCredible Health Hustle", a YouTube series documenting his journey with lupus.

CANNON: Getting my kidneys back strong.

I called it the health hustle in the sense that just making sure we're constantly going and not giving up.

CUOMO: He is a tireless advocate for the Lupus Foundation of America, realizing his influence can fuel awareness. And more importantly, a cure.

CANNON: I have lupus. Lupus doesn't have me.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUOMO: An update on the breaking news we've been following. Thousands of firefighters are on the front lines in southern California right now. At least five fires are burning, 11,000 people remain under evacuation orders right now.

Crews are hoping milder winds, lower temperatures, higher humidity will help them make some gains. We hope they will.

The dangerous and often deadly Middle East Respiratory Virus is on the move. There are now cases reported in 18 countries, including two patients right here in the United States. Health workers are most at risk. American hospitals right now are scrambling to prepare for the worst.

Our own Brian Todd has been looking into this for us. Brian, what are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, hospitals in this country are ramping up and they really need to. At least eight more deaths have been reported in Saudi Arabia over the past few days as a result of the MERS virus, with two cases now in the U.S. We went to hospitals to look at how they prepared.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Serious new warnings from disease specialists on the potentially deadly virus that has made its way into America.

DR. DANIEL LUCEY, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER: We definitely should expect more cases of MERS to arrive in the United States.

TODD: Experts say the explosion of air travel between the Middle East, where MERS originated, and the U.S., makes that more likely.

Is America ready? Hospitals tell us they've been warned for at least a year, been instructed by the CDC what to do if MERS arrived.

Here is a first line of defense: a negative pressure isolation room where MERS patients can be treated in American hospitals. It's got a special vent that moves virus-exposed air into a super filter.

DR. BRUNO PETINAUX, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: The idea behind it is to not circulate any germs or viruses to other parts of the hospital.

TODD: American health care workers have been told to heavily screen patients who have MERS symptoms like coughing and fever, to ask them whether they have been to the Middle East recently. They're making caregivers wear protective glove, eyewear, gowns, and --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the N-95 mask that our health care workers wear.

TODD: A mask that provides more filtration. These are safeguards in big city hospitals, but some small towns might not be as prepared because their health departments have been hit with major budget cuts.

JACK HERRMANN, NATL. ASSN OF COUNTY & CITY HEALTH OFFICIALS: We might not have the number of epidemiologists or laboratorians or others in the public health field who are responsible for investigating these cases or monitoring the surveillance systems that are in place to identify infectious diseases like MERS.

TODD: In small towns or big cities anywhere, medical staffers are at higher risk.

LUCEY: So a simple thing is just washing hands with water and with soap is really, really essential.

TODD: Dr. Dan Lucey is an infectious disease specialist who's battled MERS in the Middle East, and SARS in Asia and Canada. He says sometimes, the procedures they use to treat MERS patients are what make health care workers vulnerable.

LUCEY: To open up the airways, there are certain medicines that are given that could aerosolize or put a lot more virus out into the air in the shared breathing space that health care workers have with their patients. (END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Dr. Lucey says during the SARS outbreak, it got to the point where health care workers treating patients had to be monitored by other staff members to make sure they were changing gowns and gloves and masks between each patient and doing it in the proper sequence. He says it's possible that might have to happen again during the MERS scare.

BLITZER: They're going to be really, really careful.

Brian, thanks very much for that report.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Have a great, great weekend.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.