Return to Transcripts main page

American Morning

Escaping the Flames

Aired October 24, 2007 - 07:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go! We've got to go!


ROBERTS: Fresh fires in Southern California close a major interstate overnight.




ROBERTS: This morning, nearly a million people on the run.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm praying that it doesn't go up in smoke.


ROBERTS: We're live from the fires' front line. And with anguished families.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The houses that I've look at for 10 years have been engulfed in flames.


ROBERTS: Waiting, hoping that the worst is over, on this special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

And good morning to you. Welcome back. Thanks very much for joining us on this Wednesday, the 24th of October. I'm John Roberts, live from Rancho Bernardo, California.

Good morning, Kiran.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, John. I'm about 20 miles south of your location. We're here at the Qualcomm Center, home typically of the San Diego Chargers, but now a shelter for fire evacuees. There is a lot going on here. They're trying to see that every need is met this morning. A bustling amount of activity, volunteers as well as evacuees, and a lot of very specialized units set up here to make sure people are getting the help that they need, the medical care they need. We're going to be talking about that.

But first, if you're just joining us, we want to get you up to date with the very latest on the fire situation. It's 4:00 here on the West Coast, and 7:00 a.m. out on the East Coast this morning. A number of people evacuated. The number now reaching close to a million. It is the largest peacetime movement of Americans since the Civil War. Right here at Qualcomm Stadium this morning, there are around 12,000 evacuees. That's what officials tell us. It's hard to get an exact count. You see many people, but they are here. Every one of them with an incredible story of survival, and also an incredible story of uncertainty about their future. But also an incredible optimism here as well.

We're going to have more stories as the morning goes on. And we're also watching two fires burning right now. One at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, home to thousands of Marines. It's where our Chris Lawrence is set up this morning and some amazing pictures coming out of there, which we'll bring you. One CNN producer saying that the flames there have now reached the ocean. Interstate 5 is closed in both directions because of the smoke and the flames from the fires. Now one of them is actually a back fire. It was deliberately set to try to protect parts of the base, designed to be able to burn away some of the scrub and the brush so that the fire can be controlled and not spark up in other areas. And there are also fires burning a short distance away from Camp Pendleton.

AMERICAN MORNING's Chris Lawrence is there in Sana Ofrey (ph), live from the fire lines for us -- Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Kiran, we are just a few yards off Interstate 5, the main route between Los Angeles and San Diego.

You can see some of the back burn going on right behind me. The fire department set these because the main fire is up the hill behind this. It was starting to sweep down the hill, so the fire department came by and the firefighters started setting these back burns. There's also a cell tower, a repeater station up that hill. They tried to set some fires around that, because the fire was creeping very, very close again.

We've seen these embers just shooting everywhere, not just here, but much further down the 5 as well. In fact, as we drove up north on the 5, which is still closed to traffic, you could see these embers just shooting straight over the highway, and we could see fires being started clear on the other side of Interstate 5. Now, fortunately, once you get past that, it's all open ocean, so there's nowhere really for this fire to go. But again, it just shows even with just a little bit of wind -- the wind is fairly still this morning, compared to what we saw a couple days ago. But again, just even with a little bit of wind, those embers have been really flying off some of these fires, off Interstate 5 -- Kiran. CHETRY: All right, Chris Lawrence. And just the flames behind you and 'pictures your location bringing us unbelievable this morning.

John is also in Rancho Bernardo. That's about 20 miles north of where we are.

John, give us the look there at the scene there as well.

ROBERTS: Hey, good morning to you, Kiran. What you're seeing behind me is one of the homes, one of some 500 homes that have been consumed by the witch fire, which just tore through this area, chewing up all this prime real estate. Rancho Bernardo is a community of about 8,000 homes, some of them single-family homes like the one behind me, some of them attached homes. A little more than 20,000 people live here.

And when this fire came through, it just took everything in its path. Just the one little area we're in here -- and if there was more light you would be able to see it -- there are eight to 10 homes that have been destroyed. And just a little further up the hill there are homes that are still intact. The -- it's a very capricious thing, this type of wildfire that we see here, taking some homes, leaving others fully intact. And it's just destroyed so many lives here in this area as well.

As more than a dozen wildfires tear a path along the Pacific Coast here, from Santa Barbara all the way down to the Mexican border, and into one of America's biggest and most beautiful cities, San Diego. There's just so many people who don't know what the future holds for them. The fires ravaging San Diego county are expected to get worse before they get better. Over the next two days, city and county officials expect that the fires could eclipse the damage that was caused by the infamous 2003 Cedar Fire, which is the worst wildfire on record in California's history. It destroyed some 3,500 homes. So far, about 1,000 have been destroyed by this series of fires.

Some good news could come later on today, though. The fierce winds that have fanned these fires are expected to ease off. In fact, this morning they have eased off fairly substantially. Could there be a turnaround? We'll be talking to Rob Marciano about that in just a second.

But first, some amazing video that takes you right into the line of fire with the firefighters as they scramble to save a house from total destruction. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Christian, get some more hose.


ROBERTS: Well, this happened up in Running Springs. That's in San Bernardino County, up in Big Bear Lake, Lake Arrowhead area, 400- plus homes have been destroyed there. These two firefighters were just running through the canyons and along the hillsides and the ridge lines, trying to find out where the hot spots were, driving in their SUV, yanked a hose out of the back, hooked it up to a fire hydrant and started going at it. That's the way that they play here in Southern California. They just run around all day looking for these hot spots and trying to put them out.

But so far, very little containment in any of these fires. Wildfires can become so intense sometimes that they actually create their own weather. And in some cases can take on tornado-like qualities. Take a look at this incredible video here. This is from the fire in Silverado Canyon, California. The swirling is called a fir "firenado," basically a tornado on the ground with the smoke and flames shooting up from inside of it. The tornado-like row forms in the plume of heated air rising above a large fire. And you can see in some of these pictures here how these jets of fire shoot out from the ground. Look at that, as it gets sucked up to the sky with all the intensity of that heat, taking all that air up so quickly.

Well, as we mentioned, the winds here this morning are way down compared to the way they were in the last couple of days. Yesterday, we would have been standing out here in 40-mile-an-hour wind.


CHETRY: I'm joined right now by a mother and her daughter. She's actually here with her fiancee as well. All of them decided to seek shelter at Qualcomm. Jessica Sargent, as well as her little baby, Sandy, were forced from their home. It was in Cardiff, California.

And, Jessica, this actually -- your town was not even on the mandatory evacuation list, but you decided to come here. Tell us why.

JESSICA SARGENT, EVACUATED HER CARDIFF, CA HOME: Well, the first thing was that the air quality seemed to be really bad. The sky was yellow instead of blue. The sun was red. It just didn't seem right. And also me and my fiancee, he was getting sick, I was getting sick, and my baby was getting sick, and it just didn't seem like it was the right place to be, and we didn't have anywhere else to go, so we came here.

CHETRY: What's it been like here, especially with an 11-month- old?

SARGENT: Honestly, they've been so helpful. There's diapers, there's wipes, there's anything that you basically need to take care of a baby. They have formula, and they're all giving it out to you if you need it. Also, they have like cribs, and strollers and car seats, if you need car seats. They basically got anything that you need.

CHETRY: Little Sandy actually looks like she's quite happy being here. She's had a smile on her face since we've seen her, starting about two hours ago.

Our Dr. Sanjay Gupta is here as well. And, Sanjay, one of the things she was talking about is there wasn't a mandatory evacuation in Cardiff, but she started getting concerned when the baby was wheezing.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, it's interesting because we talk a lot about not just the fire, which a lot of people pay attention to, but the smoke and air and the particles -- looks like a future reporter here, by the way, right -- the particles in the air can be very irritating, especially to young children and older people's trachea. And what happens a lot of times is the gag reflex gets sort of triggered by that, and it may cause vomiting. You know, it's not anything necessarily naturally gastrointestinal, it's just that profound irritation.

I'm looking at her little eyes here, too. You probably noticed this, Kiran. But they're still watering. It's about 4:00 in the morning. She's been up all night. That's part of it. But probably just from this irritation as well. So the particle size -- can be very profound on these little children in particular.

CHETRY: And the other thing, too, she did the right thing, Jessica, by just noticing not only the wheezing but some vomiting as well, and felt like it was probably best to get out of that situation.

GUPTA: yes, I think that's absolutely the key. And you see a lot of people wearing the masks, staying in the situation. As we talked about yesterday even, the masks can only do so much. I mean, the particle size gets smaller and smaller, especially as you get further away, which is a little counterintuitive. The closer you are to the fire, big particles. The further away, smaller articles, and those can actually be more irritating and more damaging. You've just got to get so far away that they're not in the air anymore, or get inside, which we know is not easy, but for some people at least they find some shelter.

SARGENT: I even went inside, and it was still coming in my vents. And you could feel it. Like I'd stay in one room and I had an air purifier and a fan, and we were, all three of us, were in the room watching the news, and it -- that room was OK. It was OK to sit in and, you know, lay in. But the other rooms seemed like you walk out there to get a water or something and you could feel it in your lungs when you walk outside, into another room in my apartment. It's just unbelievable.

GUPTA: And it's amazing what you're talking about is actually happening in the hospitals as well. We visited some of the hospitals. They have things that are called HEPA filters, designed for that very purpose, but they were telling us because of so much in the air they're actually getting clogged up, and some of that is actually still coming inside.

CHETRY: Well, Jessica, you certainly did the right thing. Hopefully you guys will be able to get the all-clear and get back.

I know, I can't imagine, I mean, not only for people that are trying to take care of your kids, when you're taking care of your kids, you're certainly not thinking about yourself, and I know you haven't had any sleep either. SARGENT: No, I haven't slept since I got here. I volunteered once I got here. I was handing out food. They still need volunteers. They also need tents, it seems like, constantly, they need tents. They keep running out of tents. So if you have an extra tent, you're not using it, you should come down, donate it. They really need tents.

CHETRY: All right. Well, you know, boy, in a really tough situation, you're not only here, but you're helping out, so hats off to you. We wish you the best of luck.

And, Sandy, you're an adorable little girl. Thank you for being so good and talking to us. No permanent effects from this type of thing, right?

GUPTA: No, that's the good news, usually very short term effects. She already looks a lot better probably than she did before.

CHETRY: All right, Jessica, thanks for being with us.

And we're going to take a break. We're also going to talk a little bit more about what it's like when you have to evacuate your home. We're going to talk to a family about the fear, the panic and the hurried decisions that are made in those frenzied last moments.

And also Sanjay is going to join us once again. He got an exclusive look into something you're only going to see at CNN, inside the burn unit here, the burn center, where they're taking care of people who were not able to get out of the fire in time. All of that is ahead. An escape caught on tape when AMERICAN MORNING comes right back.



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


ROBERTS: You can just imagine the terror of seeing the flames come over the ridge line like that, and with the winds whipping the way they were, it creates really a flood of sparks ahead of it, too. And the fire jumps much more quickly than you would think it would. That's the way that they are in this area.

Brian Arnold's home in Escondido, about five miles north of where I am, was completely destroyed in the fire. He was able to evacuate with his wife and four children, though, including a 2-month-old baby girl.

He joins us now. Thanks for coming in. I know it's real early on, and I know that you've got other things on your plate to do besides this.

What was it like? It was 2:00 in the morning on Monday when you got the order to evacuate. You heard that young girl talking about what it was like when the flames were coming over the ridge. What was it like for you, Brian?

BRIAN ARNOLD, LOST HOME IN FIRE: You know, it was -- we saw the smoke on Sunday, started in Ramona. And we just kind of monitored it all night. I left the house three or four times and drove around kind of just to get a good view of it.

ROBERTS: You were trying to get a sense of where it was, how it was moving?

ARNOLD: Yes, the winds and where it was.

ROBERTS: And what were you seeing?

ARNOLD: You know, when I first saw it, it was about five miles away. It was quite a distance.

ROBERTS: ...trying to get a sense of where it was, how it was moving?

ARNOLD: Yes, yes, the winds, where it was.

ROBERTS: And what were you seeing?

ARNOLD: You know, when I first saw it, it was about five miles away. It was quite a distance. And the way the wind was blowing, yes, there was a potential to come to us, but we didn't -- no panic. And about 1:30, I actually talked to one of my neighbors, and he said it's getting closer, and -- but he said probably not to worry. We actually left because I didn't think I could get a good night's sleep staying there.


ARNOLD: So we had to ...

ROBERTS: Here are some pictures that you took. This is what's left of your house.

ARNOLD: Right.

ROBERTS: How quickly did the fire come upon you as you were evacuating?

ARNOLD: You know, it was -- it was still -- and that's why I left when I did. It wasn't like the flames were licking at our doorstep. We couldn't even see the flames when we left. I knew that there was more debris in the air and the winds were stronger. From what I understand from -- from a neighbor who stayed longer, about 5:30 in the morning is when ...

ROBERTS: So three hours after you left, it was gone.

ARNOLD: Yes, it was gone.

ROBERTS: I mean, must have just been so terribly difficult to go back and look at this and take these pictures. Were you able to get out of the house everything that you want -- I mean, you can never take everything that you want to because you would take it all.


ROBERTS: But, did you get out what was most important to you?

ARNOLD: No, we didn't. We didn't -- we left because we wanted to be completely sure that we would be safe, but no, we left -- in fact, the thing that we left behind most that's irreplaceable is we had a -- about a four-inch thick binder of geneaology back to the ...

ROBERTS: Tracing the family.

ARNOLD: ...1400s.

ROBERTS: Oh my God.

ARNOLD: Yes, and that was -- we hadn't transferred that onto disc yet. And so, that's gone.

ROBERTS: That's unbelievable.

ARNOLD: And there's all the -- we didn't take any family photos. We didn't take -- all that stuff.

ROBERTS: Oh, my goodness. So, just quickly, Brian, how are you with place to live, insurance, rebuilding, that sort of thing?

ARNOLD: State Farm. So, I -- actually ...

ROBERTS: And you'll go back there?

ARNOLD: What's that?

ROBERTS: You'll go back to Escondido?

ARNOLD: Yes, oh, yes. We live on 12 acres, we have a beautiful piece of property. It's still beautiful even though it's a little darker than it was before. Got a little motorcycle track up there for the kids. And oyu know, that's our home, that's where we live. We'll rebuild it. Updated the policy about six months ago, just because.

ROBERTS: So you should be all right?

ARNOLD: We're fine, we're -- my mom lives here in town, so I'm staying with her and my wife slept in San Clemente next to Camp Pendleton with our kids. And we'll rent a house for a couple years and rebuild.

ROBERTS: Well listen, we ...

ARNOLD: What do you do?

ROBERTS: ...we wish you all the best. Thanks for coming in. Sorry for your loss ...

ARNOLD: Thank you, no, appreciate it.

ROBERTS: ...but thankfully everybody got out safe. All right.

We'll be back with more coverage of the Southern California fires in this special edition of AMERICAN MORNING in just a minute. Stay with us.



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


CHETRY: And welcome back right now to our continuing coverage of the wildfires here in Southern California. We're at the Qualcomm Center in San Diego. This is a temporary home for the thousands of people who have lost their homes or who have been forced to evacuate. Some really facing an uncertain future as to whether or not they have anything to go back to.

But joining me now, Ben and Billy (ph) Schlotte, they escaped with their two sons, Griffin and Al, as well as four cats. And unfortunately, they already do know the fate of their situation. Their house burned down in Ramona, about 35 miles northwest of where we are here in San Diego. And Billy actually videotaped the frantic moments as they evacuated. They join me now to talk more about it.

Thanks for being with us. Has any of the shock subsided right now after dealing with what you've had to deal with?

BILLY SCHLOTTE, LOST HOME IN FIRE: No, it just gets worse.

CHETRY: What is -- what were those moments like when you had that video camera and you knew that your home was lost?

BEN SCHLOTTE, LOST HOME IN FIRE: It was the scariest thing in the world because we lost about 50 good pets. There's no way we could save them, yes.

CHETRY: And you were able to rescue four cats. What other pets did you have?

BEN SCHLOTTE: We had about 30-plus finches, we had a chinchilla, bunny rabbit, and toads, and one leopard gecko.

CHETRY: So, animals almost like part of the family and then losing them, were you able to get anything else out of the home before it was destroyed?

BILLY SCHLOTTE: We were able to gather up a couple of pairs of clothing for ourselves and my family portraits we tried packing up until we had to leave.

CHETRY: And what was the notice like? I know that a lot of these fire lines just jumped so quickly that people did not have that much notice. Did you guys know ahead of time?

BEN SCHLOTTE: We were able to keep an eye on it throughout the day, but no one officially came to our door saying that you must evacuate, it was just more of our own will, and brains to see that the fire is coming and to go.

CHETRY: You know, we had a chance to look as we were flying here, and you could just see a ridge of flames and then a community and then what seems like just a few miles away, another ridge of flames. It just seems like such a, a terrifying situation. What are your future plans when it comes to either rebuilding here or what you're going to do?

BILLY SCHLOTTE: We're not sure. We didn't have any insurance on our home, so we don't know where we're going to be living or staying from moment to moment.

CHETRY: Do you have family in the area?

BEN SCHLOTTE: I have no family left in this state. My only family is my wife and her family.

BILLY SCHLOTTE: My parents also live in Ramona. We're praying that their house makes it through this fire. They lost their home in the Cedar fires, so we can hopefully temporarily stay with them.

CHETRY: Wow, and how are your boys holding up?

BEN SCHLOTTE: They seem to be doing OK. They're very upset the first night. And I was able to grab a few of their personal belongings, like a coin collection, and just a couple stuffed animals, really brightened up their mood, and the video games are keeping their minds off things right now.

CHETRY: Have people been treating you guys nice here?



CHETRY: Yes? All right, well, that's good news. They seem to have had a pretty good organizational situation working here. Are you guys getting all the resources you need?

BILLY SCHLOTTE: Not yet. We came yesterday, but FEMA wasn't set up yet. We have signed up for Red Cross. They have our phone number. We're just waiting for the word.

CHETRY: All right, hopefully to get into some temporary housing at that point?



CHETRY: Well, we certainly wish you the best, glad you guys made it out, sorry about the pets that didn't and I know you have four cats as well. Are they being cared for here?

BEN SCHLOTTE: Unfortunately, I need to find cat carriers for them. Right now, they're in my truck just kind of jumping around.

CHETRY: All right, well, I know that they do have those types of resources here. They're trying to think of everything and the pets one of the things that they're trying to make sure are taken care of for homeowners. Thanks to all of you and good luck.

Again, they're talking about trying to hear back from FEMA as well. But they have been trying to link people up with a temporary housing situation, people sign up and then they get word on whether or not they're able to move to these temporary locations as they either rebuild or figure out what the next move is for them.

We are going to take a quick break. When we come back, more than 7,000 firefighters now battling on the fire lines. They're facing conditions that are really beyond description. We're going to see what it's like from the front lines of the firefight. A live report ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. It is Wednesday, October 24th. Welcome to a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING live here in southern California.

I'm Kiran Chetry. We are at the Qualcomm Center in San Diego. This has turned into a makeshift temporary housing for the thousands and thousands of people, for a small portion, actually, of the thousands, nearly a million people who have had to evacuate because of the intense fires, John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Roberts from Rancho Bernardo, California, the scene of intense destruction here as a result of the witch fire. As you can see in those pictures that we just started off with there, there's embers floating up out of the fire. Thankfully with the winds down a little bit, those are not blowing a torrent of fire ahead of the main part of the fire which can make it just jump ahead in leaps and bounds and beyond you before you know it. Let's get right to it. We want to bring you up to date now on how things look here in Southern California. More than 1,000 homes are now gone like the one behind me, destroyed by the wildfires burning all across Southern California. Almost a million people, some 900,000 plus have been evacuated and moved to safer areas.

18 active fires still being fought this morning, including two on the grounds of Camp Pendleton that have closed I-5 in both directions. Only three fires have been contained so far. Almost a half a million acres here in Southern California have been burned. One of the fires burning right now is near Camp Pendleton along I-5. That's the main highway connecting San Diego and Los Angeles. It runs along the coast in that part of the area. AMERICAN MORNING's Chris Lawrence is there now.

Good morning to you, Chris. What's going on?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Yes, the back burn fires are still burning behind me. These are fires that the firefighters set intentionally to stop the fire that you can't see. Because of the smoke, because of all the ash in the fires that are burning, you can't see that there's a mountain behind that and the danger was that the fire was going to come over the mountain. What they're doing is trying to strip this part of all its fuel so if the fire does continue to come down the mountain, it won't have anything left to burn.

We've been spending a lot of time with some of the firefighters out here over the past day or so, getting a real sense of some of the tough decisions they have to make minute to minute and some of the incredible pressures that they face.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Christian, get some more hose.

LAWRENCE: An army firefighters is deploying to California's front lines.

Open it up. Here we go.

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

RICK LINDSEY (ph), FIREFIGHTER: By the end the day we need to save 100 homes.

LAWRENCE: Strike team leader, Rick Lindsey (ph), spells out the goal and sets the rules.

LINDSEY (ph): Do not block the street. Let a house burn before you block the street.

LAWRENCE: But his men aren't used to this.

These guys are from Compton and Vernon. These are inner city departments. We're used to going in and busting on a fire for maybe an hour or two, maybe three.

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

LINDSEY (ph): I'm very exhausted. How do you fight the exhaustion? We don't have a chance to rest. The alarm went off, they jumped on the engines, they went to Malibu, they went to the Magic fire up there at Magic Mountain, and now we're down here.

LAWRENCE: City firefighters try to save everything. Lindsey (ph) has to teach them to let a home burn.

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

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

LINDSEY (ph): It's going to get worse. The winds are going to pick up at night. At 2:00 in morning I can't have zombies. When that fire overruns you, you have to have a reserve to give it 100 percent at that time.

LAWRENCE: They pass exhaustion day after 90 degree day with no real reward.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks for your help.

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


LAWRENCE: Unfortunately, with these fires they haven't heard those words nearly as much as they would have liked to. Again, back live now, you can see some of the back burns still going. If you hear that pop, pop, pop in the background, that is unexploded ordnance here at Camp Pendleton going off. Again, a lot of the fire trucks who were behind me had had to take off because the embers that had been blowing, even with the slight wind, were setting some fires on the other side of the highway. They had to go put those out to try to keep a handle on it.


ROBERTS: Ammunition going up is not something that you typically hear during a wildfire. I was going to ask you, Chris, that is a very intense back fire that they have going there. I guess they're taking advantage of that lull in the wind, but still, back fires can often prove to be very dangerous. I know when I was working in Florida a number of occasions where fish and wildlife would light a back fire, and suddenly it would become the main fire.

LAWRENCE: Yes, it almost goes against you would think, well, why would firefighters set a fire? They do so to try to strip an area of any fuel to keep the main fire from advancing. One firefighter told me just about 30 minutes ago, he said we can make the fire do what we want it to do, but again, there's always that danger. Less so with a wind like this, but again, you know how these gusts come up. I'm sure where you are standing, it's still -- you hear a little gust. One gust can really turn a back fire into a major problem for these firefighters.

ROBERTS: Yes, you can make the fire do what you want it to until the wind gets a hold of it. Chris Lawrence, for us this morning, Chris, thanks. We'll check back in with you soon.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be briefing President Bush later on today. This is the worst natural disaster since hurricane Katrina two years ago.

We spoke with FEMA Chief David Paulison about the lessons learned since then earlier on AMERICAN MORNING.


DAVID PAULISON, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: Katrina was a wake-up call for emergency management across the entire country, including the state of California. Even the fact in 2003, the fires we had here, San Diego had some lessons learned from that. We have also. We've been putting those in place for the last two years. Exercising, training, changing our philosophy of how we are going to respond. This is a different organization. It's a new FEMA.


ROBERTS: FEMA confident that the response this time around will be better, and we'll be watching.

Let's go back to Kiran at the Qualcomm Center in San Diego.


CHETRY: You know, just from the anecdotes that we are hearing from the volunteers as well as those evacuated here at Qualcomm, about 12,000 of them here at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, it certainly is better. In fact, they seem to have a very organized effort here in place, trying to make people aware of all of the resources that are available to them. They're able to get internet access, e-mail access, logon to websites to tell -- to find out whether or not their home made it. You see firefighters are able to report that information back and it's all put on a big database so people can see whether or not their home is on that list. Of course, they're hoping their homes are not on that list.

There's also information from the Salvation Army to caring for pets, to crisis management, even kosher food, acupuncture and massages booths here. Quite an organization, thanks to the help of a lot of these volunteers.

But you know it's certainly not home for these people. In fact, there is difficulty, especially those who are facing some injuries or perhaps are ill because of what they've been through. There are reports right now of at least 70 people injured in the wildfires. Now, 34 of them are firefighters. We have with us our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who got exclusive access to the University of California, San Diego's burn center.

You were able to get a look inside and see how they're caring for these people.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know it's just remarkable because this is the only burn center sort of in the county so all the patients from other hospitals, where they had either burns or significant inhalation injuries from all that smoke, also are funneled through this hospital. It was pretty full. You had about 18 beds in the ICU. They were all full when we went there. Nine of those patients critically injured, several of them firefighters as you talked about. Dr. Chembria, who you see there, he's the chief of burn. He has been busy. His own home had to get evacuated, which is something else that they deal with as staff, the physicians as well. But as the stories of people who were most directly affected by it we found there because families are sitting in the waiting room. I had a chance to talk to the mother of a daughter who's actually a firefighter. She told me the story of what happened to her daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She told me that the -- she was in the truck when the fire overtook them and had to get out of the truck. So, that's how -- with all their protective gear, everything was covered but her face was still somewhat --

CHETRY: And, you know, the other interesting thing you said is that at one point, she didn't even know if her daughter was alive.

GUPTA: Yes you know that was some of the initial media reports that came back. This is an interesting point because these burn patients come in, they look awful, as you might imagine. The daughter has a daughter of her own who's 7 years old and she thought her mom's face was just completely dirty but those were burns to her face. The only exposed part of her. What they have to do is put a breathing tube, because the airway is going to swell, so they put the breathing tube in, then they basically give medications to paralyze somebody, to sedate them, to make them free of pain, which essentially can be make a chemical coma, so they can look like they're either dying or dead. And that's why, I think, some of those initial reports came in. She's actually going to be fine, according to Dr. Chembria (ph) and actually be able to go out and fight fires again as well, which is something her mother said this is what she wants to do and she'll do it again.

CHETRY: What range of injuries are we looking at in terms of the burn unit?

GUPTA: I think the worst injury we saw at the hospital was a 15- year-old, a boy, who had actually been trying to run, literally run from the blaze and the blaze sort of overtook him, according to reports. 60 percent of his body was covered. He essentially fell, so it's maybe his back and the back of his legs. But he's obviously in serious condition. Everything ranges from that to people who are mainly hand burns, who were picking up things, you know10 percent of their body burned. But they all get treated sort of the same way. They will need skin grafting. They're going to need lots of operations over the next several days and that's going to start taking place now. I talked to one of the surgeons who plans on operating sort of continuously over the next week or so.

CHETRY: Wow. So a long process, a painful process but thank goodness they have some of the best care possible here.

GUPTA: They really seem like they are well equipped and are able to handle it as things stand right now. It does seem to have tapered in terms of numbers over to last day or so.

CHETRY: That's good news as well. Sanjay, thanks a lot.

We are going to take a quick break. When we come back, really when you look at it, it looks like you are looking into the mouth of an enormous volcanic eruption, it's high from Southern California, a massive plume of smoke that's hiding all the destruction on the ground. We will have much more. There you see it. It literally does look like a volcanic eruption, the latest from the fire lines, the latest on the efforts to help the evacuees here in Southern California, on a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.


ROBERTS: Welcome back to our special coverage here from Southern California. The California wildfires on AMERICAN MORNING.

Take a look at this, an enormous cloud over Running Springs, California, huge smoke cloud, an amazing aerial view showing this thick, dark plume of smoke rising up from the flames. It stretches for miles. That's what it looks like from the air.

Here's what it looks like from the ground in Running Springs. A couple of firefighters doing their best to try to attack one front of the fire there. And look at the intensity, just framed by a wall of flames as they try to get some water down on that fire. That's what we see all across Southern California today, as more and more fires break out.

We are now just learning about some new evacuations in the town of Deluz, which is a little north and east of Camp Pendleton, the main marine base here. And of course Chris Lawrence has been showing us the fires there.

How long is all of this going to continue to be fueled by these Santa Ana winds that pop up every fall? Our meteorologist and weather expert Rob Marciano is with us this morning to try to help decipher some of that. They are looking for a turnaround in the next 24 hours. Could it come a little early?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: That would be nice. It's pretty calm where we are standing right now. That's different from yesterday. Kind of a transitional day right now, John, and as we go through tomorrow, maybe things will get a little bit better and work for the firefighters.

Yesterday working against, big-time high temperatures, records in many cases. Take a look. Santa Ana, 99 degrees; Fullerton, California, 99 degrees; Oxnard at 96; even Oakland, as far north in the bay area, 87 degrees. We probably won't see record highs today. It will be a smidge cooler, but winds, good news, have been dying down. These are last night's wind peaks. Laguna Peak at 50 miles an hour, Camp Nine, 45 miles an hour. Almost half of what they were about two nights ago.

Where are they right now? Markedly lower in many cases. 17 mile an hour wind gusts there at Oxnard, Glendale, 11; Ocean side, 15. And generally speaking, they're still east/northeasterly so the fact that they are still offshore, still dry, still technically Santa Ana's will cause problems today.

Because of that, the storm's prediction center has still issued a critical fire danger today, with temperatures that will be warm, probably not record-breaking, but very low levels of humidity, 48 percent. Those humidity levels will increase tomorrow, then again on Friday and likely through the weekend as we turn the winds from the Pacific Ocean, get the cool ocean air in here, and that will help quite a bit. Today, lighter winds but still a critical fire danger so it's going to be a battle out there once again.

ROBERTS: Can't come soon enough. Rob, thanks. We'll check back with you.


CHETRY: All right. We wanted to give you a quick look at some of what you are seeing in terms of the resources here at the Qualcomm Center. This is the makeshift, temporary home for many people who had to be evacuated.

When they first come into the big stadium here, this is where they come in to sign up. We have David as well as Ruth, some of the volunteers that are helping people. There's a lot of information at the ready. Right here is a makeshift announcement board, if you will, it tells people where to go and what time food, in section b, head over here. They say that if you need carrying cases for animals, to head over here. So a lot of information on crisis counseling as well, hot lines and then a few other notes about what is needed and where you can go for some help. Then up here as well, some more information about Salvation Army, where you can find out about housing. The other interesting thing is this makeshift web community that's popped up., they have little pieces of paper so that people can take these and figure out where to log on. They also have free internet and e-mail it says at Best Buy just outside gate A.

Our internet correspondent Veronica De La Cruz in New York is also tracking the ability of the web to help re-unite people and also to give them information about volunteering and where to go if they can help and also where to go in you can donate. Veronica.

VERONICA DE LA CRUZ, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Yes. Kiran, I know you have been mentioning all the computer that are set up there for people to gather information. I wanted to point out a couple of really important websites. San is a good one to turn to. They have no idea whether their home is still there, standing, so is updating a list of homes that have been damaged or destroyed by the fires. The list goes house by house, it goes street by street, in some cases even tells you what condition the home is in, whether it only suffered partial damage. So again, that can be found at, Kiran.

Another web site I wanted to tell you about, the official page for the L.A. Fire Department. That's It will give you information on each fire burning, the containment, road closures, evacuation shelters. They are linked to the micro blogging site Twitter. So that's another way you can receive instant updates. That address is

And we have made it extremely easy for you to find all of these web addresses. We have compiled all emergency contacts for every city and county affected. You can get the entire list at right there on the main page, scroll down to emergency contacts.


CHETRY: All right. It sounds good. A lot of people looking for information, and the web's proving to be a vital resource.

We are going to take a quick break. Our coverage of the California wildfires continues. Up next, the cost of the recovery, already more than 1,000 homes destroyed. And insurance companies are dealing with the biggest disaster since hurricane Katrina. A closer look ahead on a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.


ROBERTS: Well, we are back here live at Rancho Bernardo, just north of San Diego. It's a community of some 20,000 people. Average single homes go for about $500,000. It could be weeks before we have a full account of the damage done by these fires. You can see some of it behind me. But there's no question it's going to be a huge hit for insurance companies.

CNN's personal finance editor Gerri Willis is here with us to tell us more about this. Obviously it's going to be an enormous hit.


ROBERTS: It's been four years after the last one, the cedar fire.

WILLIS: 1991 was the biggest fire in California, $2.5 billion in insurance damage. The fire you are talking about that happened some four years ago, some $2 billion. Current estimates right now could be half a billion but that number could certainly go higher. Big questions right now about how insurers are going to respond and questions about whether they'll do the right thing. Just in July, All State said we are not going to underwrite any more homeowners' insurance policies in California because of these big losses, these big hits we take almost every year.


ROBERTS: So, what can people do to make sure their claims get paid, and how do they make sure they have insurance the next time around instead of getting one of those cancellation notices?

WILLIS: Call your agent, call your agent, call your agent right away. Thousands of people are going to be doing this. You need to get at the front of the line to get some help right away. Then check out your insurance policy if you have a copy of it right now. This can go for people, too, who see this kind of damage and think, holy cow, what would I do if this happened to me? Look at your declarations page, that will tell you how much coverage you have on that very first line.

John, I have to tell you, most people -- many, many Americans are underinsured. You need to know you are getting enough coverage to rebuild. Be sure to contact that agent. And be sure to make a list of contents so that you can tell your insurer, hey, this is what I'm owed. I know the entire list. Go to That web site, it's the insurance commissioner's website here in California. It will help you build that list so you can actually get some money back.

ROBERTS: And keep updating that list as well as you acquire more items, right?

WILLIS: That's right. That's absolutely right, John.

ROBERTS: Good tips. Gerri Willis, good to see you.

WILLIS: My pleasure.

ROBERTS: AMERICAN MORNING will be right back with the latest on the Southern California fires right after this.