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American Morning

California Burning

Aired October 25, 2007 - 07:00   ET


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to talk to one person who came back yesterday to find their home completely gone. Rancho Bernardo looks like a war zone this morning, devastated by the Witch Fire. It was the biggest of more than a dozen fires still burning. It's neighborhoods like this one here that President Bush will be touring when he visits Southern California today to get an eyes-on look at what happened here. Sixteen-hundred homes from Malibu to Mexico already gone, and fires are still burning.
Some people are starting to come home, as we mentioned, to find out the fate of their houses, and not just here in Rancho Bernardo, but up and down the coast. Many homes have got nothing left, while right next door others were untouched. That's how capricious these fires are.

The hot and dry Santa Ana Winds are easing off today, and even turning around. That's a real piece of good news. And police are looking for a suspected arsonist in connection with two fires; a brand new $70,000 reward out today for information as to who might be responsible.

More from Rancho Bernardo coming in just a couple of moments. But right now back to Kiran at Qualcomm Stadium -- Kiran.


You know, we're down to just a few thousand evacuees, I think under 2,000, in fact, this morning here at Qualcomm Stadium. At one point there was some 11,000 to 12,000 people here at the peak of the disaster. This facility is of course normally home to the NFL's San Diego Chargers. It's been a refuge, of course, for the families that were forced to flee their homes because of the wildfires.

You know, We've been on the scene here talking to some of the people who've had to get out, also the volunteers. You're looking at some video of the area around the field, where people were using cots to sleep on, and then of course you're seeing some of the amenities that were here, including massage, acupuncture, acupressure, little small things to comfort those who were going through an unimaginable time. The volunteer effort has been just amazing. More than 2,000 people giving up their time. Some of the volunteers actually had to be turned away.

But, again, evacuation orders lifted last night for a dozen or so communities in San Diego County, so some people have been returning to their homes. In many sad cases, it's not much, as you see. The shock never goes away when you first have to go and see what's left of your home, and realize that you know, this is not -- this is really the reality. One of the families that we talked to said, you know, I knew, and I was told, but I didn't quite believe it until I saw it with my own eyes, and it was just a shock all over again.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger making several trips here to Qualcomm. He was visiting with some of the evacuees. He's also been a presence across the state during the fires, meeting with firefighters, touring the front lines to make sure things are going as smoothly as possible.

Our chief national correspondent John King actually had a chance to sit down with the governor throughout his busy schedule. They talked about his approach to the crisis, as well as the state and the federal response.


GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: The most important thing is, don't sit around in the office and try to make decisions out of the office. You've got to be with the people. It's the most important thing.

I think if the federal government does not really play ball with us or if they're not good partners, I complain immediately. But in this particular case I can tell you, I was really surprised, pleasantly surprised, how quickly the president picked up the phone, called me in the middle of my first briefing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Others have said the state was slow to answer the phone or to issue the orders.

SCHWARZENEGGER: But we could not use some of this equipment and some of the aircraft because of the wind conditions, so that was our big disadvantage.

I've heard that the weather is going to change today, but I mean, I wouldn't, you know, trust my life with that information.


CHETRY: You know, John, not to many governors who get asked for their autographs or to flex muscles for their pictures, but of course you know that's the scene with Arnold Schwarzenegger, definitely using his star power to his advantage here, and of course he actually does make it nice for people who are going through a tough time. They get a visit from the governor, who also happens to be -- or a former very popular movie star -- John.

ROBERTS: Yes, he also doesn't take criticism well, this talk that Southern California was unprepared for these fires. He just flat out said, that's ridiculous; don't even talk to me about that.

Right now firefighters and hundreds of Marines at Camp Pendleton are fighting two major fires on the Marine Corps base. One marine said that the eerie orange skies lit off by this fires reminded him of what he saw in Iraq; 60,000 Navy Marine and family members stationed at Camp Pendleton. The Marines have told all of their personnel to be prepared to take their families and get out. But evacuation from the base at this point simply and strictly voluntary. Families say that there's no power there, they've lost freezers full of food. It's hard to breathe because there's so much smoke.

In fact, all over the area, particularly among military people, you see them wearing these masks, and the masks, the outside of the masks are coated in black, so that's a pretty good indication of what have they're breathing in.

Camp Pendleton, even though it's got it's own problems, though, also donated more than 2,000 cots and other essentials to San Diego relief centers.


CHETRY: A lot of problems certainly been the case. Many homes destroyed by the Southern California wildfires. We first met the Schlotte family on AMERICAN MORNING. They showed us home video that they took as the fire closed in on their home in Ramona.

Here's part of their interview yesterday yesterday.


BILLIE SCHLOTTE, LOST HOME IN FIRES: 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: So we followed the Schlotte family back to what they used to call their home to see remained. They told us they really wanted to do this -- they wanted to go back because they needed to see what was left, and even though they were told it was all gone they said they were still hoping for a miracle.


B. SCHLOTTE: My heart's pounding. I feel total panic.

CHETRY (on camera): This isn't going to be easy because your husband didn't make it through the checkpoint.


CHETRY: Hopefully he'll be joining you in a couple of minutes. But are you ready to walk over there and see?

B. SCHLOTTE: I'm as ready as I'm going to be.

CHETRY: What upsets you the most about going back and seeing what's left?

B. SCHLOTTE: Everything. Everything, just thinking about all of this for the last three days and, you know, wondering if we still had a house or anything left from our home. Everything, it's really hard.

CHETRY: You're helping out your mom?


B. SCHLOTTE: He said he'd hold my hand the whole way.

CHETRY: And he's doing it.

B. SCHLOTTE: It burnt everything. Oh, my god! I don't even know what to say, I'm sorry.

CHETRY: What were you expecting?


B. SCHLOTTE: This. This is -- I really didn't know what to expect. This used to be our car.

CHETRY: This was your car?

Ben's here.

B. SCHLOTTE: It's gone.

You're not going to believe this.

CHETRY: Were you able to get paperwork, photos, jewelry?

B. SCHLOTTE: I got my photos. I got some jewelry. I wasn't able to get all of that, but I'm glad that we got what we got.

CHETRY: Everything is replaceable?

B. SCHLOTTE: No. No. The memories aren't replaceable.


CHETRY: It was really hard for Billie. On one hand she was knowing how lucky they were that they did get their whole family out, they were able to get the four cats out as well, but at the same time, I mean, it really seemed to be hardest on her. She was talking about feeling a sense of panic, but she really wanted to go yesterday. She felt it was very important to get there and see it for herself, but the emotional stress is unimaginable.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It really is. We never experienced anything like that. But your home is obviously your permanence, both physically and emotionally, in so many ways.

There are several things which seem to make a difference, though, in terms of how someone responds to it, the meaning that they attach to this. Do they think I was singled out in some way? I was punished for something. That obviously makes it a lot worse.

Do they also pileup, meaning, well, not only did my house burn down, but also x, y and z. That makes it worse. And obviously lack of resources, family resources, emotional resources; if you don't have that, that makes it worse.

The flipside of that, just psychologically, you know, not taking away too much meaning from it, not letting things pile up and trying to seek out resources seems to be good advice, at least from what we're hearing, for someone like Billie and her family.

CHETRY: You know, and the other thing, too, is that you also have to hold it together for your kids. During points throughout this, the kids are actually trying to cheer up their mother saying, look, we found this small, you know, decoration that was once hanging up, and she's trying to hold it together for them, yet it's so difficult.

GUPTA: Yes, and children are obviously going to react a little bit differently. They can continue to relive the experience. The more you talk about it the more they sort of almost think that it's continuing to happen. So a lot of the same basic rules apply to them, maybe even more so, and to sort of get them back into a normal routine of some sort. It's obviously going to be hard for someone like Billie. There's not a house there for her husband, but if there are family members to establish some sort of routine, get them back into school even if possible and set up a regular routine again.

CHETRY: You've been out with a lot of these medics and a lot of the doctors that are in the field, trying to help people. What have you seen the most?

GUPTA: You know, I think the thing here, even at Qualcomm Stadium was that they were prepared. I think that would be the one word to describe it more than anything else. I talked to a doctor that was here yesterday, Dr. Schendin (ph). He was actually here visiting a friend of his who was having a baby, and he decided to just come in here and help anyway, and I think that was sort of a theme that we saw throughout, many doctors, both here at Qualcomm and in the hospitals.

CHETRY: Record temperatures, I think that they were calling in some of the doctors because of fears of dehydration as well for some of the people. They took care of that yesterday afternoon.

We're going to check in with Sanjay again a little bit later. He's going to be joining us throughout the morning. He's been at the burn center. He's been right there out at the front lines with the medics, trying to make sure that people don't get sick on top of all that they've been dealing with here in Southern California. Thanks, Sanjay.

We're going to take a quick break. By the way, a lot of Southern California families have been getting these reverse 911 calls. One of them is the man who invented this reverse-911 system. That's probably saved a lot of lives. We're going to talk about that when AMERICAN MORNING comes right back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel kind of bad, because I'm hoping that I don't lose my home, but then I feel bad because I know a lot of people have lost their homes.



CHETRY: Welcome back to the most news in the morning. We have some amazing shots to show you from the fire lines in Southern California. Winds of fury as flames swallowed a home. This is in Escandido. The town devastated by the massive Witch Fire, the largest here in San Diego -- 36 homes last there, and there are still some parts of the town that are not safe for evacuees to go back to.

Also the destruction in Rancho Bernardo, part of that fire as well. And it was literally a line of fire that was chewing up the hillside in Santiago. That's about a 40-mile drive from downtown L.A. So far, at least, 11 homes have burned to the ground in this area, and to make matters worse, police are saying that they're now looking for a suspected arsonist in connection with this 20,000-acre fire. Unimaginable to believe that someone would intentionally cause that much destruction, devastation and heartache to their fellow neighbors.

Marines also under attack. Helicopters made water drops at Camp Pendleton where they're fighting two major fires on the Marine Corps base. The Marines have told all 60,000 personnel and families, though, to be prepared to take their families and get out. The evacuation, though, at the base, at this point is considered voluntary.

We're going to head back to John. He's in Rancho Bernardo this morning. Hey, John.

ROBERTS: Be patient just a little bit here, because we want to bring you a very personal story. Gordon and Marilyn Wood moved down here to Southern California about 10 years ago from Toronto, where I was born there as well, and you never heard of a wildfire, and their home, unfortunately, is what you see behind us here along with their car. It's a Mercedes-Benz and it's just nothing more than ash.

I guess it was early Monday morning, Gordon, when you evacuated this house. Tell me what was going on at that moment.

GORDON WOOD, HOME DESTROYED IN FIRE: Well, at 4:30, I was asleep in bed and the phone started ringing. It was the reverse 911, I guess. We picked up the phone. My wife complained that somebody was calling at that time of day, went down and made coffee, and looked out the window and there were flames coming up the hill. We have a very steep hill here, about three acres, and the flames were at the house within minutes, so we had less than five minutes to get out. We didn't even have time to put on shoes when we left.

ROBERTS: Marilyn, did you know the house was going to be a complete loss at that moment? Did you feel it in your heart?

MARILYN WOOD, HOME DESTROYED IN FIRE: It was burning as we were leaving.

ROBERTS: You're kidding.

What goes through your mind when everything you have invested down here suddenly is going up in flames like that? I just can't imagine.

G. WOOD: It didn't really hit us until we got here yesterday. We kind of tried to not think about it too much, and then yesterday, we got an opportunity to come here for 10 minutes. They wouldn't allow us to touch anything or really go into it, and then it kind of hit home. But before that, it was just kind of survival and get out of the way of the fire.

ROBERTS: Will you try take a chance today to sift through to see if anything remains?

G. WOOD: They won't probably let us up again today. We have to wait until they secure the area, or whatever they do.

ROBERTS: So, Marilyn, people who never experienced anything like this -- and I'm sure you haven't either -- are wondering, where do you go from here? Do you rebuild? Can you adjust to the change? Do you want to come back here?

M. WOOD: It's really scary for me to come back here, even to stand here, but we loved our house. And I think, yes, we should...

G. WOOD: And our neighbors.

M. WOOD: And our neighbors, we loved our neighbors. So I think yes, we'll come back and rebuild.

ROBERTS: So you'll rebuild, knowing that the danger may be there again in the future?

G. WOOD: Well, it won't be for awhile. There's nothing left to burn.

ROBERTS: Well, that's true, but it can grow back quickly.

M. WOOD: Yes, it can, and...

ROBERTS: The years go by quickly, too.

M. WOOD: And I guess we'll just have deal with that as it comes.

ROBERTS: Well, we thanks very much for talking with us. I know how difficult it is. We hope you at least get a chance to see if there's anything left, and we wish you a lot of luck in rebuilding.

Were you fully insured?

G. WOOD: Yes.

ROBERTS: Well, that's good. So many people were. Gordon and Marilyn Wood, thanks very much.

M. WOOD: Thank you.

G. WOOD: Thank you.

ROBERTS: God, such a difficult story.

And these stories that you see just repeated hundreds of times all over this area as people try to cope with this enormous sense of loss. Very difficult times here, and it's going to take a long time for people to recover from this.

Thanks very much.

G. WOOD: Thank you.

M. WOOD: Thank you.

ROBERTS: We'll be right back with more of AMERICAN MORNING right after this.


CHETRY: Well, the threat is still high for the thousands of homes across Southern California this morning, and it means that a lot of families could be getting phone calls like this one:


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the San Diego Sheriff's Department with an emergency message on October 23rd at 10:00 p.m. Due to a fire in the Fallbrook area, all Fallbrook residents are under a mandatory evacuation notice.


CHETRY: That's a reverse 911 call. San Diego officials started using it after the fires of 2003, when 16 people were killed. This time around, only one person died. Nearly a million other people evacuated in time.

Joining me right now is one of the people behind the reverse 911 system here in San Diego, Greg Cox, the vice chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Good to have you with us this morning, Greg.


CHETRY: What were the lessons learned from 2003 to now in terms of this reverse-911 system?

COX: I think the frustrating thing for us four years ago, was we had literally deputy sheriffs going out at 3:00 in the morning banging on doors, telling people that they have to leave and they have to leave now.

And the sheriff, Bill Kolender, and I got together afterwards, and one of the lessons we felt we could kind of build upon, was getting a system in place that would give an advance warning to people.

The problem was people went to bed at 10:00 in the evening four years ago, and they saw maybe a glow way out in the distance, and because of the Santa Ana conditions those fires, you know, after they went to bed at 1:00, suddenly within an hour, an hour and a half, they were literally in their backyards and so the 911 system has allowed us, reverse-911, has allowed us to go in and let people know. We sometimes given an advisory, or first call is an advisory to let them know that it's a fire and they ought to be aware.

The second call that may come in would be a voluntary evacuation, and then, you know, obviously we just heard what an example of is of a mandatory evacuation, that they need to get out for their own safety.

CHETRY: There has been grumblings whether or not California, in general, was as prepared as it could be. In fact, Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather yesterday said, "It's an absolute fact, had we more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire."

Do you think that San Diego was adequately prepared?

COX: Four years ago I don't think we were prepared at all. Since then, we have bought three aerial fire-suppression helicopters, two by the county, one by the city of San Diego. We've had those resources.

But in the early hours of this fire, just as in the early hours of the fire four years ago, when you have the high Santa Ana conditions, 50 to 70 mile-per-hour winds, 9 percent humidity, we had a perfect firestorm four years ago, and we got it again. In the first 24 hours, we were very limited on what we can handle.

Since then, we've 40 helicopters that are in the air. We have 34 fixed-wing aircraft. There's, I believe, three C-130s that are coming in through the efforts of Congressman Hunter.

So, I mean, we've got a lot of resources coming. Could we use more? Sure we could.

CHETRY: You could always use more. But do you think it was safe to say that in those early days, with the winds as high as they were, it would have been too dangerous to fly, even if you had a ton of planes sitting there?

COX: Well, I think that was case in the first 24 hours of this fire. The Santa Ana conditions were just too severe, and the smoke was too much. The fire was moving too quickly. There was no offense at all going on. It was basically telling people to evacuate and trying to set up a perimeter where they could begin fighting the fire once the winds died down. CHETRY: All right, and quickly, before we let you go, Qualcomm certainly seems to be a success story in terms of coordinating efforts and finding a place for evacuees where they could get resources. How did this come to pass?

COX: Well, I think one of the things that we learned a couple of years ago is we had kind of, you know, competing press conferences going on between the city and county. We really pooled our resources together, Mayor Jerry Sanders and our chairman, Ron Roberts, of the board of supervisors have really done a tremendous job having a coordinated effort in regards to getting information out. The military has certainly stepped in, and I'll tell you, the citizens of San Diego County have come through once again, and all of the materials that are being dropped off here. We've got 40 different shelters that have been set up in a matter of hours.

And you know, once we get the fires under control, obviously we begin a much longer process in the recovery, and we still have to depend upon the generosity of people in San Diego County and really throughout the country.

CHETRY: We wish you a lot of luck in that. Greg Cox, vice chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Thanks for talking with us.

COX: Thanks for being here.


ROBERTS: Kiran, you know, a lot of bad news all over the Southland here, but also some news across the country, particularly for employees of Bank of America.

Ali Velshi back up there in New York Minding Your Business. What's up, Ali?


This is a continuation of the story we've been hearing about how this mortgage crisis turned into a credit crisis, which is affecting financial institutions this is morning. We have news from Bank of America, one week after reporting not-very-good earnings numbers, that they are laying off about laying off about 3,000 people. They're going to be writing off about a billion dollars. Just 24 hours ago we heard from Merrill Lynch, they're writing off $7.9 billion. This is all related to this ongoing crunch. We also got news yesterday that existing homes, that's the biggest part of the market, John, are -- have seen their biggest drop since about 1999, and in a few hours we'll gets news on new home sales. We're not expecting much better of a picture.

So the home crisis continues across America, although right now all eyes focused on people who are actually losing their homes in California -- John.

ROBERTS: Absolutely. Ali, thanks. We'll talk to you soon. Police say a wildfire that's burning currently in Orange County, California was deliberately set. So how close are investigators to finding out who did it? We'll tell you, next on AMERICAN MORNING.


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to this special edition of AMERICAN MORNING on this Thursday, the 25th of October. I'm John Roberts in Rancho Bernardo, California.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Kiran Chetry. We're just about 20 miles south from where John's location is. We're at Qualcomm Stadium, a shelter for fire evacuees. At Qualcomm, really this has been the heart of relief efforts in San Diego County but the stadium has a very different look and feel this morning. It's because many of the evacuees who came here have been given the all clear and been able to return to their homes.

Probably less than, fewer than 2,000 remain right now down from the peak of about 12,000. Many of those who left are returning to homes that are destroyed. Property damage in San Diego County alone totaling more than $1 billion from some of those early estimates and of course John, they say as they head out, more of these inspections, these housing inspections are taking place, that number will probably go up and so will unfortunately the number of homes declared destroyed.

ROBERTS: Because not only are some of these houses burned to the ground, but many others of them have suffered some sort of fire damage and may be uninhabitable.

There is progress though and hope on the fire lines in southern California. Crews say three major fires in Los Angeles County are fully contained and that is good news. Several smaller fires north of San Diego are largely under control as well, but the desperate battle rages on with six large fires in San Diego County. Firefighters say close to 9,000 homes are still in danger across the region.

The Santiago fire in Orange County north of here, just south of Los Angeles has burned 19,000 acres and destroyed close to a dozen homes. Someone may be responsible for starting it. There is a $70,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Joining us now live from the Santiago Fire Command Post, Battalion Chief Chris Conception.

Chris, tell us what you know this morning. Why do you suspect arson in this fire?

CHRIS CONCEPTION, SANTIAGO FIRE COMMAND POST: Good morning. As far as the arson is concerned, the reason we think it's arson because we found multiple points of origin and when find multiple points of origin, that leads to us suspect arson and our investigators confirmed this is in fact arson.

ROBERTS: When we're talking about multiple points of origin, you're talking about somebody lighting a match and trying to set it to some tinder, was it an accelerant like gasoline used, do you have any concept as to exactly how that fire was started?

CONCEPTION: The investigators are still working on the how. What they've already figured out, though, is that whoever has started this has started it in different points that indicate that they wanted to grow rapidly.

ROBERTS: Right. So tell us, if you would, chief, what is this arsonist now responsible for?

CONCEPTION: Actually, the numbers that you gave have grown a little bit. We're up to about 22,000 acres right now. We've got almost 1,100 firefighters on the scene trying to fight this fire, and hopefully today, with the weather, the winds shifting on to more onshore winds, we're hoping to get the upper hand on this thing.

ROBERTS: What kind of individual would do something like that?

CONCEPTION: You know that's the part that I really can't figure out, to tell you the truth. That individual knew that, on Sunday, when this fire started, we had really the perfect storm, if you will, and we had the heavy Santa Ana winds. We had the low relative humidities. We had the high temperatures and for someone to even think about doing something as reprehensible as starting a fire, where they knew that the fire would grow as rapidly as it would, traveling about three, three and a half miles in about an hour, is just, is really absolutely unconscionable.

ROBERTS: Yes. Just staggers the mind. Chris Conception, battalion chief from the Orange County Fire Department, thanks for being with us this morning. Good luck to you, sir, as you try to battle those flames. Of course Governor Schwarzenegger has promised that the arsonist if caught will be dealt with harshly. And there also is an 800 line. If you have any information who may possibly be responsible for the Santiago fire, here's the arson tip line, it's 1- 800-540-7085, again a $70,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of that person.


CHETRY: All right. Thanks a lot, John.

Today's lower winds mean that more of the fire can be fought from the air. They have helicopters as well as air tankers attacking the flames with loads of water as well as fire retardant. Among that fleet the nation's biggest fire fighting plane, AMERICAN MORNING's Chris Lawrence had a chance to ride along on that plane and he joins us in Rancho Bernardo this morning.

Hi, Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kiran. Yes, the DC-10 is part of a bigger controversy. Some Orange County officials feel that if they had more air support early on, some of the fires there could have been controlled. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says winds were gusting up to 100 miles per hour the first couple of days of the fire and any planes would have been grounded. So we decided to see this massive air tanker for ourselves from the air. There it goes, 12,000 gallons of fire retardant dropped from a DC-10 blanketing part of the Harris fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 9-10 and 9-0, that looked really good.

LAWRENCE: The plane was deployed to that part of San Diego County after shifting winds moved the fire north and east and prompted new evacuation warnings. An average air tanker can cover a few hundred yards of the Harris fire but the DC-10 can lay down a fire line three-quarters of a mile long.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can see a northwest wind today.

LAWRENCE: It's 7:30 in the morning; the pilots get their first briefing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That fire is 196,000 acres, 10% containment.

LAWRENCE: The fire retardant is loaded at 8:00 a.m., and 15 minutes later the flight crew is suiting up inside the DC-10. At 8:45, we board what's called the lead plane. It flies the actual route ahead of the DC-10 and tells that pilot where to make his drop.

CHETRY: Sorry to interrupt the piece that Chris Lawrence was bringing us about that DC-9, because we are just hearing from the president, just moments ago, he spoke as he gets prepared to head to the California wildfires. Let's listen.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH, UNITED STATES: These people of southern California battling these wildfires, I want to assure the people of California that the federal government will be deploying resources, assets and manpower necessary to help fight these fires, as well, I will assure them that because of the declaration I assigned yesterday, there will be help for the people of California. Evidently the winds are more favorable today, which should be encouraging to the firefighters.

I'm also looking forward to spending some time with the fire, some of the firefighters. We got some incredibly brave citizens who are risking their lives to protect people and property in California and we owe a great debt of gratitude to our nation's firefighters. It's a sad situation out there in southern California. I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts, and they just need to know a lot of folks care about them, and looking forward to my trip out there. Thank you.

CHETRY: So that's the president just moments ago as he prepares to leave. He is heading here actually. He's going to be doing an aerial tour to look at some of the damage. He's also going to be getting a chance to meet with some of the firefighters who are volunteering their time on the front lines and probably going to sit down and have a conversation as well with the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.


ROBERTS: May even tour some of the neighborhoods, neighborhoods not necessarily the one behind us but ones like the one behind us.

Firefighters have been getting a break finally from the Santa Ana winds. There may be welcome news on that front this morning. Rob Marciano our meteorologist and weather expert on all things from hurricanes to the Santa Ana winds has been in southern California all week. He joins us now.

Rob, is this the best news they could hope for?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's pretty much what we've been expecting all week. Yesterday there were gusty winds but likely localized. Morning we're seeing at least along the coastal sections and within a 10 or 20-mile inland section, winds at least are light.

Here's what's going on. Take a look at the current winds up and down the coast from north of Los Angeles to San Diego proper, and these haven't changed a whole lot. They are still offshore but much lighter than they have in the past couple of days.

The question is, when do they turn onshore? It looks like the pressure gradients, computer models are saying it will probably turn onshore right around noontime. Winds will be 5 to 15 miles an hour, stronger toward the coastline. That's where it will help the most.

There will be an issue, there may be some areas that get burned that didn't get burned on the way toward the coastline but all in all, it's a fairly favorable environment for firefighters. Unlike what they've seen in the past couple of days.

A quick look at some of the numbers for these, this entire event, and it's staggering when you think about what this compares to. Laguna Peak earlier this week had a wind gust of 111 miles an hour, that is the equivalent of, well, a minimal category 3 hurricane, albeit a wind gust, Warm Springs 91 and the list goes down. Not only the strength but the duration, three, four, almost five days stretching so that coupled with drought, lack of rainfall and the vegetation around here. We'll talk more about that in ten minutes.

ROBERTS: The drought expected to continue as well, no sign of rain in the future. Rob, thanks.

Hospitals are built for emergencies but what happens when the hospital itself in the line of fire? We'll take you to one facility to had to make a last minute decision, stay and treat the injured to evacuate to save the lives of the staff and patients. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's going on here is amazing, and they've made it very comfortable. We've pulled up into the parking lot and within five minutes, somebody was coming up to us with a shopping cart saying do you need baby food, do you need diapers, do you need wipes, do you need anything?



CHETRY: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING. We've been talking about people who came here to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego because they were told to get out to escape the flames of these wildfires. Well one hospital was actually overwhelmed by the flames. Scripps Memorial Hospital was treating patients, it's just north of here, even as the fire was bearing down. Sanjay Gupta got a firsthand look at that. He joins to us talk about it. Some of the doctors their own homes, and nurses are being evacuated and they're being treating patients.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Personally and professional they're so effected by this obviously. It was so interesting to see the decision making behind the scenes, Kiran. Because they had a split decision to make, evacuate and close down or whether to keep treating patients. Over the past few days, firemen and paramedics working overtime. I'm just looking at the computer screen here. It's 56-year-old woman with a life-threatening emergency. That's all we know right now. Shawna (ph) looks OK. She has a normal heart rate, normal breathing but something catches the EMT's attention.

SHAWNA (ph): I think I had too much smoke in the fire.

GUPTA: That's a red flag; the paramedics whisk her off to Scripps Memorial. It's lucky for her the hospital is even still there. When a town catches fire, sometimes this hospital gets caught in the path. George Rodriguez is head of the emergency room at Scripps Memorial.

At some point you decide you evacuate or don't evacuate.

DR. GEORGE RODRIGUEZ, CHAIRMAN, EMERGENCY MEDICINE: They had us on standby so we were ready to go if anything should happen.

GUPTA: At the last moment the winds changed and Scripps Memorial remained open. That's a good thing for Shawna (ph) and also for Annette McCauley (ph). Get this, this is her second time here because of wildfires.

ANNETTE MCCAULEY (ph), EVACUEE: I was actually working and caught in the fires in 2003.

GUPTA: Is the air quality in southern California going to be sort of not great because of the wildfires?

RODRIGUEZ: During this period of time there's always that problem with the fires.

GUPTA: You know one of the things that's so striking is I checked the air myself. A lot of people have been asking about this, they have the particle counters. I just want to give you a quick idea. Normally around that hospital the particle count is about 1 million particles per cubic foot. Right now about 16 million so 16 times higher and Kiran, even inside the hospital specifically about 100,000, now about 1 million particles per square foot.

CHETRY: Inside?

GUPTA: Inside the hospital despite the filters, despite all the air scrubbers and despite the fact that they have only one door for in and out but obviously still a problem.

CHETRY: You hear people just walking around coughing a little bit, like a nagging sensation, very irritating, even if they're not that close to the flames.

GUPTA: Yes. It will last awhile. This is important. Because people think it looks better now and they don't have to worry about it. Doctors have been telling me two weeks from now you get an upsurge in the number of people with irritation of the lungs, emphysema, asthma, things like that.

CHETRY: That's unbelievable. All right. We'll check in with you later. A lot of people have questions about not only air quality but burn care and things like that so we'll be answering those a little later. Thanks, Sanjay.


ROBERTS: Well, Veronica De La Cruz of course has been monitoring all of the I-reports that have been coming in to us here at CNN over the last few days. Our viewers send us amazing pictures what have they've been seeing right in their own back yards. Veronica is up in New York.

Good morning Veronica.

VERONICA DE LA CRUZ, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Good morning to you, John. We are seeing a ton of really amazing pictures coming in from the region. I want to show you this. This is video from Oto Godfrey of the Santiago fire, which is burning in Irvine just south of Los Angeles. He says the fire spread three miles in half an hour, John. Also this photo; this photo from Allen Ling. He's also in the Irvine area.

Now that's the Santiago fire. He says he was driving around taking pictures of the sky when the fire broke out along the road he was driving on. These next images come in from San Bernardino, they're from Laura Gates who's actually pulling double duty for us. Look at this. She says that she was actually making cookies for the firefighters and she was snapping a few pictures for us. She says that she and her neighbors watched as firefighters managed to save the houses in her cul-de-sac.

You, too, can send us an I-report logging on to and send it to Please, we cannot stress this enough, you have to be careful. Do not put yourself in harm's way to get the shot. John.

ROBERTS: Veronica, thanks very much.

Switching now to a live picture from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. President Bush on his way to California, about a five-hour flight for him aboard Air Force One. He should be getting on the ground about 1:00 eastern this afternoon, 10:00 this morning pacific time. You can see there the rain in Washington today. He's going to be touring the area, via helicopter. Got to wipe off that lens and make sure you get a good picture of the president. He's going to be touring the area by helicopter, talking to the fire crews on the ground and good chance he will be coming to neighborhoods such as the one we see behind us in Rancho Bernardo.

High winds definitely a factor in the spread of the wild fires and how they jumped so quickly. What actually goes into fueling the fires? Up next, how dry grass and hot ground create a feast for fire. Rob Marciano looks at that when AMERICAN MORNING returns.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We contact our insurance people and start putting the pieces back together to rebuild it. We'll be back.



ROBERTS: It's the biggest of more than a dozen wildfires still burning. This aerial view the aftermath of the Witch fires shows how fickle the flames can be. You can see that some homes were completely untouched while a row of houses next to them were destroyed. The Witch fire has burned some 200,000 acres across this part of San Diego.

A heart-wrenching homecoming for a couple here in Rancho Bernardo. The place that Mark and Bobbie Davis called home for almost 20 years was entirely burned to the ground. Family photos were melted. They said that they didn't get a call. We hear about this reverse 911 call. The woke up in the middle of the night, saw smoke and flames, grabbed clothes, insurance paper, whatever they could grab and got out of there as quickly as possible. They say they'll try to salvage whatever they can and rebuild their home.

It's something that we hear again and again across southern California. People say we know we're living in the danger zone. We love it so much we're going to rebuild. We'll be right back with more AMERICAN MORNING after this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They don't even get paid, the Majestic Canyon Fire Department they don't get paid for what they do and they saved my house.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ROBERTS: Here's an up close and personal look at some of the destruction here in Rancho Bernardo, a car that was sitting, completely charred. The car that was inside the garage here, which we believe may have been a Porsche 911, doesn't look like much of a car anymore. The homes averaged about $500,000, some upwards of $1 million. You can imagine an extraordinary amount of property damage as the fire just roared through this area and took so much of it in its path. But again, that capricious nature destroying a whole row of houses here at the top of this hill, and then just down the street, leaving other ones fully intact.

Our Ali Velshi is up in New York "MINDING YOUR BUSINESS" this morning.

Ali, is there any kind of estimate on just how much worth of damage this has done and what kind of shape the insurance companies are in to deal with it?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The second part first, they're in very good shape to deal with it. The insurance companies are quite flush with cash.

From the insurance industry, we're getting estimates upward of $500 million. That's in damage from things that are insured. From a firm that actually studies these things and projects outward based on what's continuing to happen, they're thinking about $1 billion based on what we know right now in insured damages.

To put that into perspective, in 2005, hurricane Katrina generated more than $40 billion in insured damages, so this is relatively small. Also most people tend to have fire insurance. Anybody with a mortgage does, and most homeowners do. It's in fact, the basis for property insurance. It's the number one thing you get when you get property insurance.

Let's talk about what's going to happen in the immediate future. Obviously people are out of their homes, are sort of out of the economic cycle. That will be people who are not shopping, not going to work but this tends to generate a lot of economic activity because everyone is going to have to buy materials to rebuild their homes and furnishings for their homes.

So hopefully there will be some silver ling to this as we go forward, John.

ROBERTS: Hopefully not too many people will be told by their insurance companies, we're going to insure you anymore.

VELSHI: We'll stay on that to make sure that that is the case.

ROBERTS: All right.

The heat is coming up off of the rubble still here in Rancho Bernardo. We'll have the latest from the destruction in southern California. The next hour of AMERICAN MORNING starts right now.

CHETRY: White House visit.


BUSH: They need to know a lot of folks care about them.


CHETRY: Right now, President Bush on his way to California.

Reinforcements also swooping in. We're reporting from the fire line in the air.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The chopper, the helicopter crew is putting out remaining hot spots.


CHETRY: And on the ground with family taking their first steps back.




CHETRY: We're live in southern California on this special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

ROBERTS: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING. Kiran, with us from Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. I'm John Roberts in Rancho Bernardo, California where we're getting another up close look at the devastation. President Bush is also going to get one. He's now on his way to the disaster zone in southern California. As reality sets in for families here, not only in Rancho Bernardo but other across the region, this area was just absolutely devastated by the Witch fire.

It was the biggest of more than a dozen wildfires still burning. It's neighborhoods like this one President Bush will be touring. He will speak with the governor and get up and close and personal with some of the men and women on the fire lines. People are starting to come home to find out the fate of their houses. Many homes and homeowners have got nothing left. Right next door, others were untouched. It really speaks to the capricious nature of these wildfires. The hot and dry Santa Ana winds though are finally easing which is tremendous news. Police are looking for a suspected arsonist in connection with at least one fire.