Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Hundreds of Homes Destroyed, Thousands Flee Colorado Wildfires; Ferocious Winds, Severe Drought Fuel Historic Colorado Fires; Mayor Clint Folsom (D-Superior, CO) & Mayor Ashley Stolzmann (D-Louisville, CO) Discuss Devastating Wildfires in Colorado; COVID Cases Send Record Number of Kids to Hospitals as FDA Expected to Authorize Boosters for Kids 12 to 15; COVID Surge Dampens New Year Celebrations Around the World; Biden Pushes for Ukraine De-escalation in Call with Putin. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2021 - 11:00   ET




ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with breaking news out of Colorado where a state of emergency is in effect right now. Two massive wildfires have destroyed hundreds of homes and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate with very little warning.

The fires are burning near Boulder. They exploded out of nowhere Thursday. Fueled by winds as high as 115 miles per hour.

Officials say these fires are likely to be the most destructive wildfires in the state's history.

Colorado's governor is taking an aerial tour of the damage right now. These are live pictures. We are expecting an update from him and local officials in a briefing in the next hour.

CNN's Natasha Chen is standing by in Boulder with the breaking details.

When we say this came out of nowhere, people really didn't have notice to evacuate, did they?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Amara, the scenes that we have observed from people taking cell phone video and those really frightening moments show that they were running from debris and ash raining down on them.

Once they got in their cars, it was difficult to see anything at all. We're talking about hazy, orange skies. Really making it difficult for them to see where they were going. So a very frightening situation.

Right now, we're in the town of Superior. It's just outside of Boulder. We also visited the town of Louisville where neighborhoods were burned

out. And there are still puffs of smoke behind us, down below, across the city, where hot spots are still gone on.

Here are a couple residents talking about the very frightening experience of leaving their homes.


LEAH ANGSTMAN, EVACUATED: Knowing that the fire is only blocks away, knowing that you could never see those family photos again, that part was harder than seeing the devastation.

JASON FLETCHER, EVACUATED: We really started to see the sky turn dark. We sensed there was a bad fire, but we didn't know that there was an intense fire right beside us.

HEIDI FLETCHER, EVACUATED: We got into the car, our faces were covered in black ash and debris. We had masks on. It was in our mouths.


CHEN: And just an example of what people are going to find once they come back to their neighborhoods and see what's left.

We're already hearing from folks like the University of Colorado, Boulder, assistant football coach who said he's lost every material possession he has and has to start completely over again.

Again, just really devastating stories here. I'm sure we'll hear more of that as people start to discover the fate of their homes -- Amara?

WALKER: Yes. And we just saw those aerial pictures that the governor, Governor Polis, is also seeing. They're just stunning.

I mean, it looks like a bomb was just dropped in these areas. You see the smoke in the air. And so many neighborhoods completely damaged. The homes are not standing anymore. All you see is ash and smoke.

And, of course, some homes here and there scattered that were able to escape this ferocious wildfire, driven by these really strong hurricane-force winds.

The National Weather Service says a truly historic windstorm fanned these wildfires in Colorado. But high winds are not the only thing fueling the fires.

CNN meteorologist, Jennifer Gray, is joining us now with more on that now -- Jen?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Amara, you're right. The drought situation in Colorado is one contributing factor to the wildfires.

And 100 percent of the state is under drought conditions right now. In fact, more than 65 percent of the state in a severe or extreme drought. You can see that bright red near the Boulder area. Now, this year was the latest first snowfall for Denver, which

happened on December 10th. It wasn't much at all. In fact, over the last six months, Denver only received about an inch of rain. So just incredibly dry across the region.

But the snowfall is coming. We could see four to eight inches of snow for the region.

This is the radar right now. You can see it's already starting to come down. It will come down all the way throughout the day on Saturday before it starts to wrap up.

So we are going to get intense snowfall over the next few days. So I do think, Amara, this will be welcomed when you're talking about the drought situation as well as those fires.

WALKER: All right. Jennifer Gray, thank you so much for that.


All right. So to talk more about this are the mayors of the two hardest-hit towns in the Boulder area. We have Clint Folsom, mayor of Superior, Colorado, and Ashley Stolzman, mayor of Louisville, Colorado.

I want to start with this incredible video of the devastating damage.

First of all, to you, Mayor Folsom. Tell us about the destruction you're seeing. This could be the most destructive wildfire in Colorado's history.


Thanks for having us on today.

It's complete devastation. I was able to tour the area yesterday evening with the town manager and sheriff's sergeant and we just witnessed incredible devastation around the town.

Then also witnessed houses just exploding right before our eyes. It was one of the most disturbing situations I have ever been in.

WALKER: Can you tell me about how quickly you had to evacuate from your home, Mayor? I know you had to run out pretty quickly.

FOLSOM: It was minutes of notice. I was actually out of town during the evacuation. My family rallied very quickly and, you know, just had minutes to get out.

The same stories all across town. People just had very little time to get out.

Usually, in a situation like this, you have a little bit of time, a little bit of advanced warning. But these winds were just unprecedented, the dry conditions, it just all combined for a tragic situation. WALKER: Mayor Stolzman, what are you seeing from your vantage point?

From the pictures we're seeing, you can see entire subdivisions were taken out by this fire.

MAYOR ASHLEY STOLZMANN (D-LOUISVILLE, CO): This tragedy absolutely touches everyone in our community. We're a very tight-knit community, alongside of Superior. The amount of devastation touches everyone in our community.

We are so grateful for the hard work of the first responders, not just from the local towns but all the first responders who came in from out of town.

WALKER: Do you know if everyone has been accounted for given the nature of how quickly these fires ripped through the various neighborhoods?

STOLZMANN: You know, there's not an accounting system of people. So we had really strong evacuation. I visited the evacuation centers last night and saw lots of neighbors and folks from towns.

But we'll be going through the town in the next several hours and days to determine that destruction.

WALKER: Mayor Folsom, I'm just trying to imagine, I've been through a hurricane before. But in these dry conditions, fueling a fire, we're talking about 115-mile-per-hour winds.

Can you just talk to us about your experiences in the past? Have you ever seen anything like this before?

FOLSOM: You know, high-windstorm events are not unusual in the Colorado winters in the front range and in other parts of the state.

We have certainly had winds like this, though something of this strength was definitely out of the norm.

But I guess this was always a fear, you know, you would see dry grasses in the great open spaces that we have next to us. And, you know, we all cherish that space for views and hiking and biking trails.

But when it gets so dry and then you combine that with wind and some fire, it just becomes a tragic recipe.

WALKER: What are you hearing, Mayor Folsom, about the potential cause of this?

FOLSOM: I have not received any information on that.

WALKER: Mayor Stolzmann, have you heard anything?

STOLZMANN: The official cause is not determined. But the early conjecture was downed powerlines but the official cause has not been released.

WALKER: What is your message to people who are going through this right now?

It's New Year's Eve, right? We've all been dealing with this pandemic. And now you have these fires that have ripped through so many of your communities. People will be without a home.

They're -- from what I understand, looking at Facebook pages, people are still looking for their loved ones, even their animals, their pets.

What is your message to the people in your community?

We'll start with you, Mayor Stolzmann.

STOLZMANN: Thank you. Yes. Our community has been very strong supporting each other almost over the last year --

WALKER: Oh, it looks like we lost both mayors.


But we're going to stay on top of this breaking news story as we are seeing these devastating pictures of the aftermath of these fires that ripped through, at times, driven by these 100-mile-per-hour winds. Hurricane-force winds.

There will be a briefing in less than an hour from now. We'll bring that to you as soon as it happens.

Coming up, the U.S. is seeing explosive growth in COVID cases and sending more kids to the hospital in record numbers. We'll have the latest on the pandemic when we come back.


WALKER: The coronavirus is raging across America in the final hours of 2021. The U.S. once again shattering its record, now averaging more than 355,000 new cases a day.


More than 90,000 people with COVID are sick enough to be hospitalized, the most since mid-September.

And the number of children being admitted to the hospital with COVID is at the highest level ever. It comes as the FDA is expected to authorize Pfizer booster shots for 12-year-olds to 15-year-olds soon.

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen joins us with more.

So how soon could we start seeing shots in arms for this age group?

DR. ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Amara, CNN hears from sources that it could be just days before children ages 12 to 15 are allowed to go out and get booster shots, something people over the age of 16 have been doing for weeks now.

When these children go back to school, this is how many children, if this all happens, will be eligible for booster shots.

If the FDA and the CDC give the green light, there are four million children ages 12 to 15 who are already eligible for a booster shot because they're at least six months past their initial shots.

There's another 4.7 million have received their shots but received their shots more recently so they would be eligible in the weeks to months to come.

Boosters are great, but here's the unfortunate thing. As children are going back to school, ages 5 to 11, 14 percent -- only 14 percent of children that age have been fully vaccinated.

If you are looking at 12-year-olds to 17-year-olds, only 53 percent have been vaccinated.

In other words, when they go back to school next week with Omicron raging, only that percentage are fully vaccinated. And this as hospitalizations among children are on the rise.

Let's take a look. The peak for children being admitted to the hospital was in September. That was an average of about 342 children being admitted per day. Now we're at 378.

That number, Amara, is only going to go up -- Amara?

WALKER: Yes. Obviously concerning.

Thank you very much, Elizabeth.

The explosion of COVID cases leading to more subdued celebrations to usher in the new year. Several major cities have either canceled or altered their New Year's celebrations, hoping to discourage revelers from spreading the virus.

CNN's Polo Sandoval is live in Times Square with more.

Where the ball drop celebration will go on but not at the scale we have seen before.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Those massive, massive crowds won't be back this year, at least this year. We'll get to that in just a second.

But just consider alone what we've seen around the world in some of the world's largest cities, not scaling back but just canceling many of these New Year's celebrations. The list goes on and on. Paris, Rome, Atlanta as well.

But also those that are scaling back. We saw one a couple of hours ago. For example, New Zealand, instead of going with their annual fireworks show, they turned it to a light show.

You also saw a big celebration happening in Sydney as well where officials are certainly hoping that many people celebrate from home and give them an opportunity to actually participate by watching these kinds of displays.

But for those in-person celebrations, they're scaling them back considerably.

That's what we're going to see tonight here in New York City where authorities say that the show is going to have to go on.

In fact, as we heard from Mayor Bill De Blasio, in some of his final days in office before the next administration takes over, and they said they want to send a message to the world that they'll be fighting through this while taking significant steps.

That includes making sure those 15,000 people who are allowed to come into Times Square are masked, are vaccinated and, hopefully, socially distanced.

That's why they're greatly reducing the number of folks allowed in Times Square tonight for when that ball drops -- Amara?

WALKER: All right. Polo Sandoval, thank you.

Joining me now is Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo. She's a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

Welcome to you, Doctor.

First off, let's focus on this alarming rise of hospitalizations for kids. Up nearly 70 percent from last week.

How concerned are you about these numbers, especially as schools, classrooms are set to reopen in the coming days?

DR. JEANNE MARRAZZO, PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE & DIRECTOR, DIVISION OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA, BIRMINGHAM: Right, Amara. I'm extremely concerned, like everyone else who has been sounding the alarm, particularly about the low vaccination rate in the kids that we're talking about who are being infected.

As I said before, we're around 8 percent coverage in Alabama for this age group. It's really worrisome.

Remember, this is a function of simple math. The explosive rise in cases is really fueling what normally might be a relatively small proportion of kids who are experiencing these severe outcomes.

But you put the gigantic numbers of cases together with the small number affected, plus the proportion of unvaccinated and I'm really worried that we'll be in for a tidal wave of admissions, particularly for kids in the coming weeks.


WALKER: How do you advise parents who want to send their kids to in- person learning, right?

But let's say -- here in Georgia, there's a lot of schools that don't have mask mandates.

If you're a parent who wants their child to mask up and you send them to school that way, without any guarantee that the child next to them or the teacher will be wearing a mask, is that safe?

Should they wait a few days or a week or two before sending their kids back into the classroom?

MARRAZZO: There are so many concerns at play here.

Everyone, I think, agrees that in-person learning and the loss of in- person learning the last couple of years is probably going to have a devastating and really unprecedented effect on kids. We just don't know what that's going to look like.

So anything we can do to safely get kids back to school, especially for parents who are really struggling trying to work with their job responsibilities and everything else.

The key thing here is that masks are important. I personally would really emphasize the need for masks if kids are going back.

The fundamental thing to do is to get everybody vaccinated if you possibly can.

What I try to talk to parents about, who have legitimate fears about vaccination safety, they're caring, they care about their kids, is that the risk of these vaccines so far in kids is so, so much less likely than the risk of these severe outcomes we're talking about.

So it's really a game of trying to figure out what is best for your kid. Right now, almost all the hospitalizations that we're seeing in children are among unvaccinated children. Really critical point to emphasize.

WALKER: How safe are outdoor play dates, given that Omicron is so infectious?

MARRAZZO: It's a great question. We spent a lot of time early on in the pandemic talking about running, bicycling, all sorts of stuff, and whether you could get infected by tailing somebody on a bicycle.

I suspect that we are going to see more infectiousness with outdoor activities.

That said, it's so much safer outdoors because of, obviously, the ventilation advantage and the circulation advantage.

It's another thing I don't think we want to take away from kids. Please get outside, get some fresh air, do exercise in a way that feels good.

And I don't think that's one more thing that we really need to, again, take away.

WALKER: It's all about balance, isn't it? Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, appreciate your expertise. Thank you very much.

Happy and healthy new year to you.

MARRAZZO: Same to you. Thanks a lot, Amara.

WALKER: Thank you.

Coming up, did President Biden's call with Vladimir Putin do anything to defuse tensions? We'll tell you how the White House and Kremlin are spinning it next.



WALKER: A new phase of diplomacy between President Biden and Vladimir Putin. The two leaders spoke for nearly an hour on Thursday afternoon.

Biden vowing the U.S. and allies will, quote, "respond decisively" if Russia invades Ukraine. As the Kremlin says, Putin warned Biden against imposing major sanctions.

CNN's Nic Robertson live in Moscow with more.

How did the talks go, Nic?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Both sides came out saying they were positive, constructive. Both sides seem to understand there's areas where they can have agreement and areas where there will be disagreement.

The real question going forward is how big with those areas of disagreement. Because Putin wants clarity over NATO and Ukraine.

But when it comes down to the content of that conversation, the Kremlin reported it out this way.

They said President Biden told President Putin that if he doesn't reduce the tensions on the border with Ukraine, i.e. remove troops, there will be big sanctions, economic, military and financial sanctions.

That was how the Russians read it.

President Putin, the Kremlin spokesman replied saying if you do that, that will rupture bilateral relations. It will be a colossal mistake. A mistake that will be felt across the generations.

On that key question of, is Russia or will Russia reduce its troops on the border with Ukraine?

The Kremlin spokesman said, look, what president Putin told President Biden was I'm going to continue with my troops, my Russian troops where they are just as you would if there were Russian troops across the border from the United States. This sort of equation that Putin is implying here, NATO troops on the

eastern borders of Europe, close to Russia, with the scenario that's happening on the border with Ukraine and his troops.

You know, both sides have come out of this knowing where the red lines are. That's about as good as it's going to get right now.

WALKER: All right. Nic Robertson, thank you for breaking that down for us.

Joining me now is William Taylor, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Ambassador, thank you so much for your time.

You heard from Nic Robertson that they're both drawing the red line. You hard Putin saying, look, I'm not going to withdraw my troops just as NATO is not going to.

What did these talks accomplish if anything?


WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: So I think these talks emphasized the importance of the conversations, the dialogue, the discussions that will take place in Geneva and Vienna and Brussels in the first half of January.

That's the route. It's the conversations.