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The Situation Room

Mexican Wildfire Jumps Border, Threatens San Diego; Avian Flu Debate; War on Drugs: Protecting Children; Some Question Validity of Miers Nomination; Florida Crocodile Hunter

Aired October 05, 2005 - 17:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: It's 5:00 p.m. in Washington. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where news and information from around the world arrive at one place simultaneously.
Happening now, it's 2:00 p.m. in San Diego, California, where it's man against the elements. Right now, crews are battling a fire that began in Mexico, then jumped the border; 1,500 acres are gone so far.

It's 5:00 p.m. here in Washington, where many are wondering the probability of mass deaths and the possibility of quarantine. What may sound like a fictional plot is a very real fear of a bird flu epidemic.

And it's a CNN exclusive in the war on drugs. Agents tracking down dealers, confiscating their source of profits. We'll taking you inside the campaign to keep drugs out of your children's hands.

I'm John King. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for joining us. Wolf has the day off.

We begin with a developing story. High winds and low humidity --, conditions could hardly be worse for crews fighting a wildfire that started in Mexico then jumped across the border into Southern California. Right now, officials are considering ordering evacuations.

For more, we're joined on the telephone by Roxanne Provaznik with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Roxanne, what can you tell us simply right now about the scope of the fire and how many firefighters you have out there trying to bring under it under control?

ROXANNE PROVAZNIK, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION: Right now the fire is 1,500 acres. Five-hundred of that is in the U.S. We've got about 235 firefighters working the incident.

KING: When you talk about it on the border like that, what is the coordination with Mexican authorities? And is this something you practice, or is this something you're dealing with on the fly today?

PROVAZNIK: We have mutual aid agreements with Mexico. And when we originally saw the fire, it started in a structure and spread from that structure into the brush, and then starting the U.S. border. We have agreements with them that we can actually go into Mexico and help work on the fire, and that's what we did. We sent engine companies in. They tried to work on the fire, but with the winds, the conditions we're having right now, it was just a little bit too much for us to handle, and it quickly spread to what it is now.

KING: And do we know anything about any injuries? Anybody at risk?

PROVAZNIK: I haven't heard of any reported injuries, but they are doing a precautionary evacuation on the south side of Highway 94 between Barett Junction West and to Summit Road. And again, it's not an immediate threat, but in case the fire does continue to progress and gets worse, we want to make sure those homeowners are ready to go at a moment's notice.

KING: And we're talking you from the East Coast, obviously, a little after 2:00 out on the West Coast. When do you face a determination in terms of issuing more -- broader evacuations? And what would be the complications there in terms of how close is this to, say, major highways, residential areas?

PROVAZNIK: Well right now, being along the border, it's a fairly remote area. But if it does increase, it's going to be threatening more structures. And hopefully, it's going to run into some old burns that we've had in previous months and years. And that'll slow the fire down. We'll take advantage of any situation we can to try to get the upper hand on it.

KING: And you mentioned the mutual aid, the cooperation between the U.S. firefighters and the Mexican firefighters. Does that include U.S. firefighters crossing to the border south, Mexican firefighters perhaps crossing to the border north?

PROVAZNIK: Yes, it does work both ways. If we have a fire that's in America and that is threatening down there, the bomberos can come across and they can act on our fire to put it out before it becomes a problem for them.

KING: Roxanne Provaznik, thank you for that information on this developing story in California this afternoon. We wish you and your crews the best of luck with that fire.

And CNN's Tom Foreman is standing by with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM to give us an idea of just where this fire is and the problems it could pose to those firefighters. Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this kind of fire out in the West, we said earlier on, can grow very, very rapidly. A few years ago, all along this area, on the Mexican border and north, they had a series of fires break out two years ago in October. Thirteen people ended up dying in the process and one of those fires exploded by six -- excuse me, by 10,000 acres in six hours. So that's why you have to do is watch these things very closely.

Let's take a look at what we've got right here. This is the area we're talking about. If we fly in here to the coast, I'll show you where the fire is. First of all, let's talk about the populated areas. You asked about this earlier on. Generally on the U.S. side of this, not a heavy population. This is Imperial Beach, which is the area you'd most see as a population zone right around the U.S. side of it. But if we turn around here and we take a look at the fires themselves, as we fly in, you see this area is not heavily populated right down to the border. Little bit going on, but not a lot. Fires up on top of this hill.

However, if we go right across the border, that's when we get into Tijuana. And if you look at this, Tijuana the metropolitan area, about 2 million people. And those houses do go pretty well up to the border here. We've talked about this before. Roads like this and like this are natural firebreaks that firemen work with all the time.

But if you move from this part of Tijuana over here, you can see a tremendous number of houses clustered right up to the border here, and that's why you have to watch this, because of the explosive nature of these fires that we talked about. You can have them start leaping back and forth.

And of course, the fire doesn't care if there's a border or not. They do care if there are roads and rivers. That's why you have to keep it under control, because on this side, you've got all this growth. Over there, less, until you start talking about right over here which is near the famous border crossing that we've always talked about. Over here, you see much more on the U.S. side. So you've got to watch them.

KING: Can we get a sense from these pictures -- in speaking to the California fire official, she said they were pondering evacuations, waiting to see if they could get a handle on this. How quickly, how far do we have to go before you commit to some areas where you have significant residential populations?

FOREMAN: Well, obviously on the Tijuana side, you've got a lot right here. You've got some right down here. This is closer, again, I mentioned the border crossing. This is the one you always see in news coverage of the cars all backed up forever. That's over here. North of here is San Diego, little towns along the way.

As you know, Southern California hugely, very densely populated area. So part of the problem this time of year is, frankly, this. There fires start exploding October, this time of the year when everything's dry -- a lot of it lightning-strike fires. Even when you start moving people, other fires are breaking out. That's what they've been dealing with in California. They get this fire under control and three hills away, another fire breaks out. It has nothing to do with the first one, but they have to deal with it all.

Obviously, if you start evacuating people -- you know, we looked this with the hurricane. Evacuating people works when you have time. When you don't have time and you have 2 million people, it just doesn't matter. You can't move them.

KING: Tom Foreman, thanks for your help keeping track of this developing story. Some amazing pictures so far. No indications of any major injuries or worse.

Tens of millions of people killed by the Spanish flu. Why scientists are looking to that pandemic for clues to the bird flu threat. I'll talk to the co-author of an alarming new study.

Also, the conservative split over the president's pick for Supreme Court justice. We'll show you what Harriet Miers' critics are saying.

And reports of a surprise turn in a closely watched celebrity relationship.


KING: A prize winning author once said, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire P.R. officers." Right now in Washington, many are wondering which is which for Harriet Miers, President Bush's little-known pick for the Supreme Court. While some supports embrace her nomination, other conservatives are either wary or openly against it.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Those of us who know her, have a great deal of confidence in her, and those who do not yet know her, I think they will learn why those of us who do have confidence in her.

KING: A vote of confidence in Harriet Miers from a leading conservative and fellow Texan, John Cornyn. But many others on the right are not convinced, including some of Cornyn's Republican colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who of course get the first crack at voting on Miers' nomination.

Senator Sam Brownback and Tom Coburn are reserving judgment. Brownback is openly skeptical about Miers' views on abortion rights and whether she shares the conservative goal of overturning Roe versus Wade.

Now, former Majority Leader Trent Lott also is weighing in, saying he's not satisfied with what he knows about Miers and her qualifications.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know her heart. I know what she believes.

KING: Despite the president's pitch, columnist George Will questions whether Mr. Bush's judgment can be trusted and whether Miers' nomination can be justified. In the "Washington Post," Will writes "It is not important that she be confirmed because there is no evidence that she is among the leading lights of American jurisprudence, or that she possesses talents commensurate with the Supreme Court's task. The president's argument for her amounts to, 'Trust me.'"

Will joins a host of other conservative activists and pundits going public with their view that Mr. Bush came up short, to say the least, with his choice for Miers.


KING: Now, there are, of course, some conservatives who are backing Miers, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, and the group called Progress for America. Still, the voices of opposition may be troubling to the White House.

Joining us now to discuss this, White House Communications Director Nicole Wallace -- perhaps known to some of our viewers as Nicole Devenish, now the happily married Nicole Wallace.

Nicole, let's just let's start with that simple, stunning development, to see this was the conservative president. The conservatives trusted him throughout the first term, trusted him early in the second term. The president's "trust me" argument is simply is not selling right now.

NICOLE WALLACE, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, our party is the party of ideas, and our party is the party of principle. But our party is sometimes a little uncomfortable with the unknown. And I think this is a president who has never swung and missed when it comes to appointing judges at all levels that strictly interpret the Constitution.

Now, you've had a lot of experts on your air. But the grassroots Republicans out there share this ideal as much as any inside-the- Beltway elite conservatives. And if you ask them what they care about, they care about a court that is humble, a court that strictly interprets the Constitution and does not make new laws from the bench. And they trust this president to put the most qualified person on the bench.

And I think there's a little bit of an indictment out there that someone from inside the fraternity and the exclusive boys' club, elite schools and the monastery that the appellate court wasn't selected. But just because this wasn't what some elites had predicted doesn't mean it isn't an incredibly exciting moment for our party and for our White House and for the court.

KING: But what does it tell you about the political weakness, if you will, at the moment of the president, George W. Bush, that conservatives are so willing, some even eager, to question his choice right now?

And as you answer, I was just stunned. You mentioned -- you're calling this the boys' club, but a member of your club, David Frum, was in the program a short time ago and he said, maybe he should have named her secretary of Transportation, but she just doesn't have what it takes for the Supreme Court.

WALLACE: You know, Daniel Frum, or David Frum, or whatever his name is, has now spent more time on your air than he ever spent in the West Wing. I don't know where he forms his judgments of Harriet Miers, but he doesn't know Harriet Miers. George W. Bush does, and George W. Bush is a man of his word who ran two times on a commitment to putting people on the United States Supreme Court who will strictly interpret the Constitution and not make new laws from the bench.

And I can't wait to see people like Senator Brownback in 24 months wave around Miers' opinions and feel so proud and so happy that we have a court that has moved in this direction that everyone really has hoped that it would.

So I think with the Roberts nomination that Harriet Miers was so instrumental. People have no idea that a White House counsel is critical in helping presidents make decisions about judicial nominations. So she stood at the president's right arm, right hand, as he made his judicial appointments. And again, he has never misfired when it comes to appointing judges to do exactly what our conservative critics want them to do.

KING: Given that, you're saying the president has never misfired. This president is known as someone who can bristle when people criticize him, especially when he thinks it's simply off base. What has he said in the last 24 to 48 hours when you sit around in those strategy sessions in the White House, saying, how do we deal with the fire from our own party? What has the president said about it? Is he mad?

WALLACE: Well, you've covered this White House long enough to know that we don't do a lot of navel gazing or second guessing around here. We're very proud of our nominee. Harriet Miers is someone who sets the pace and who is, frankly, way out of the league of some of the people like Daniel Frum that have been on the air criticizing her. He should keep his fights with hacks and flaks like me.

But look, we're very proud of getting to put two extraordinary justices on the Supreme Court who both believe, as the president does, in judicial restraint and, you know, really are celebrating the opportunity we've had to make two historic nominations to the court.

We also have a president who is very busy. He's working very hard. He's been to the region that was devastated by not one, but two hurricanes and is working with the Congress to help the Gulf Coast to get back on its feet. And we also continue to work to fight and win the war on terror. So it's a White House that is humming along, as you know we always do.

KING: Well, one of the hacks, whatever you want to call them -- we call them analysts here, you can call them what you will. But one of our analysts recently on with this hack, we were talking, Bay Buchanan said she thinks it's a possibility...

WALLACE: I call myself a hack. A hack and a flack.

KING: I will join you. She said it's a possibility if the conservatives don't quiet down and get in line, she saw it as a possibility that Harriet Miers would raise her hand and say, "Never mind," and withdraw from consideration if the conservatives don't turn down the volume. Any chance of that happening?

WALLACE: Well, she's a smart lady. I think anyone that knows Harriet Miers and anyone that's been lucky enough to be represented by Harriet Miers through her 30-year career in Dallas legal circles and through her five-year incredibly distinguished career here at the highest levels of the United States government knows that this woman doesn't back down from a fight.

KING: Nicole, you mentioned the White House humming along. Of course, you know the polls which show just -- a bit otherwise. Many Republicans say the reason they're asking these questions is because there are some Republicans trying to distance themselves a bit from the president.

Before the hurricanes, before the Roberts and the Miers nomination, it was the Iraq war that was hurting the president's political standing. A big speech from the president tomorrow, strategy in the war on terrorism. Many are saying they want new information about an exit strategy. They want a better explanation of why we're still going to have more than 100,000 troops in Iraq more than two years into this war.

What will the president tell us new tomorrow?

WALLACE: Well, we certainly recognize that our party, and frankly all leaders in Washington, do best when they have the most recent information. And I think what we'll seek to do tomorrow is take a step back.

And we spent four years, I think, as Americans becoming quite familiar with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and the terrorist network that attacked us from September 11. But I think that the terrorists have evolved their strategy. And the president will talk a little bit about militant extremists that now have a loose network that spans across the globe. And I think we all are saddened when we see the attacks like the Bali attack and the attacks in London. But we don't take a lot of time to step back and talk about and think about and understand how they're all related and how best to protect ourselves from this very determined enemy.

KING: We will look for that speech tomorrow. Nicole Wallace joining us from a very familiar spot to me on the North Lawn of the White House.

WALLACE: We miss you.

KING: You look good there. Take care, Nicole.

WALLACE: Thanks, John.

KING: Coming up, the toll climbs in a medical mystery, 16 people now dead -- all linked to a Toronto nursing home. Health officials desperate for answers.

Plus, Tropical Storm Tammy -- high winds and heavy rain. We'll get the latest forecast just out from the National Hurricane Center.


KING: An update our viewers now on a developing story we're tracking, that mystery illness. Zain Verjee joining us now from the CNN Center in Atlanta. Zain?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNNHN ANCHOR: As you know, John, we've been tracking this story all afternoon and we're getting more information now. Sixteen people are dead and dozens more have fallen ill. In total, there are some 88 cases of those infected, 70 residents, 13 employees, and five visitors to the nursing home. Nearly three dozen people are in hospital right now.

And Canadian health officials don't know what's going on. They have yet to figure out what exactly has hit them. They've ruled out bird flu, they've ruled out SARS, as well as Legionnaire's disease. Most of the victims of this mystery respiratory illness are elderly residents of a single nursing home.

The majority of cases are said to be improving, while some others have others have actually worsened. Toronto's top health official is saying they don't know, as I said, what it is, but they are confident that the outbreak itself is now under control and limited only to that nursing home.

A microbiologist working to isolate the illness says that its spread may be over even before they're able to identify it. There have been no new case reports, John, in the past 24 hours.

KING: Zain Verjee in Atlanta. Thank you, Zain.

And bankruptcy filings are spiking, with thousands of Americans rushing to get their paperwork done in the next two weeks.

CNN's Ali Velshi has the "Bottom Line" on why from New York.

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, John. They really are spiking. Take a look at this. We have had the numbers in from last week on the number of bankruptcy filings, 68,000 bankruptcy filings last week. That's an average of 13,000 a day.

In the month of September, bankruptcy filings were averaging about 10,000 a day. A year ago, there were 6,000 a day. Why so many? Because on October 17, a new law comes into effect -- the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. This is effectively going to make it a little harder for people to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, that's personal bankruptcy.

Now, one of the changes in this new law is that people who want to file for bankruptcy will have to take credit counseling for about 6 months heading into that. You can't run up the credit card bills in anticipation of it. The rub is that it's going to make it a little tougher for people to, A, file for bankruptcy, a little more expensive to do so, and not everybody who files for bankruptcy is going to get all of their debt erased. Until now, you could, in certain circumstances, get most of your debt erased if it wasn't student loans or taxes or things like that.

Now, let's just talk about why this is. It all ties into what we've seen in the markets. Personal income is a big issue in America. Personal income is your income minus your taxes. And that gives you your disposable income here. And I think we've got something here. If you take your disposable income and you subtract everything you spend, you've got your personal savings rate.

Now, John, as you know, Americans have a negative personal savings rate. Once you get your income and you take everything out that you spend, the average American is not only left with nothing, they're left with debt. The average American carries $12,000 in debt because the world of credit has been turned on its head. Money is cheap. It's not a bad thing to be in debt. And now, as interest rates start to rise, people get a little bit worried about whether they're going to have a job or not. Consumer spending starts to turn down and things get more expensive. You start feeling the pinch.

More people are declaring bankruptcy. Even if you don't look at this law, a year ago in September, 6,000 people a day were filing for personal bankruptcy. So this business about things getting more expensive all around is hurting people.

John, the one thing to remember is that more than -- well, maybe not more than half, but most bankruptcies, personal bankruptcies, are triggered by healthcare costs.

KING: That's right. Ali Velshi with the "Bottom Line" in New York. And when you talk of personal savings, I'm keeping that nickel handy. Thanks, Ali.

Still to come, preparing for a pandemic. If the bird flu flew over the U.S. borders, could the country's health system keep it under control?

And later, the latest surprise in the celebrity romance between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.



KING: A new forecast just out from the National Hurricane Center for Tropical Storm Tammy.

Let's go straight now to CNN meteorologist Jacqui Jeras in the CNN Hurricane Center. Jacqui?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Tammy is making its run for the coast as we speak. In fact, it's just offshore of the Jacksonville area. It has gained some strength today. Maximum winds are now up to 50 miles an hour. But the big story here is going to be the rainfall. It's been quite heavy throughout much of the day from Jacksonville extending on northward.

We're going to zoom in there and show you. There's the center of circulation. Not very well defined. It's going to slow down a little bit as it heads on up to the north and to the west. And we are expecting it to move towards Georgia. The Georgia coastline has been getting pounded all day long. And there's a heavy area right near the state border that's going to be heading towards Brunswick very shortly.

There's also a risk of a few tornados developing with this storm system. We're going to go ahead and show you, there's radar composite. The storm really has been getting bigger throughout the day today. And the tropical storm force winds extend out 175 miles from the center of the storm, but most of those are well away from the center, so we're only getting gusts along the Florida coastline, around 20, 30 miles an hour. It's going to be moving to the northwest through the night tonight as a tropical storm down to a tropical depression towards Atlanta late on Thursday.


KING: Jacqui, thank you very much.

Now, a threat some experts say is more contagious than the Ebola virus and smallpox, the deadly bird flu virus. There's no drug proven to stop it. So if it did land here in the United State, would quarantines of large areas be a viable option?

Our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre has more on that. Jamie?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well John, now that the president has revealed that he wants to use the U.S. military possibly to stop a future epidemic, or enforce a quarantine, a lot of questions about how that would happen.


MCINTYRE: Worst case, a mutant strain of avian flu that can be passed from person to person hits America's biggest city, New York. The president orders active duty and National Guard troops to seal the island of Manhattan, closing the airports, including Newark, JFK and LaGuardia, and shutting the city's numerous bridges and tunnels.

It's a scenario not unlike the one depicted in the 1995 movie "Outbreak."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your town is being quarantined.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN, ACTOR: We got 19 dead, you got 100 more infected. It's spreading like a brushfire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you talking about?

HOFFMAN: If one of them's got it, then 10 of them have got it now.


MCINTYRE: But how practical is the idea that any city, much less one that with as many ways in and out as New York, can be sealed by military force? MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: How do you possibly limit the flow of people and goods in and out of a city like this? New York needs to have food brought in. It needs to have other things brought in. You need a certain amount of crossing of the perimeter or the city becomes uninhabitable.

MCINTYRE: The reality is, these days a quarantine is more likely to attempt to limit movement of infected people by screening passengers at airports, confining sick people to their homes and banning large gatherings of people where the infection can be spread.

What the military brings is the same things it brought to hurricane relief -- logistics and manpower, especially medical facilities and the ability to move them quickly and operate without support.

Where the issues get thorny is the Hollywood scenario -- combat troops strong arming, possibly shooting, desperate victims of a natural disaster.

O'HANLON: It would be an ugly thing if we had to use the military. Nobody in the armed forces would relish the thought of imposing some kind of a martial law-like environment on their own fellow citizens, especially on law-abiding citizens who had done nothing criminal.


MCINTYRE: One problem that needs to be addressed in the federal government's pandemic response plan is protecting the first responders. Normally, they'd be vaccinated ahead of time. But since there's no vaccine for avian flu, at least not yet, that means taking other measures to prevent exposure.


KING: Jamie McIntyre, thank you very much.

We want to turn now to continue this discussion to Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger. He's a pathologist, just mapped out the killer flu of 1918. And there are frightening parallels, he says, between that flu, which killed 100 million people around the world, and this avian flu we're tracking right now.

Right now we want to bring into the conversation -- mostly to help me -- our senior medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who is in Atlanta.

Doctor, I want to start with this premise -- you say it's eerily familiar. So from that parallel, are there lessons to be learned from 1918 that help you today?

DR. JEFFREY TAUBENBERGER, ARMED FORCES INSTITUTE OF PATHOLOGY: We think that there are. We're trying to understand how it is that influenza pandemics happen. So influenza viruses are present in wild birds, in domestic birds, farm animals, humans. These viruses move around between species and we need to understand how that happens.

And the last two pandemics we know about were mixtures of human and bird flu viruses. But we think the 1819 virus was an entirely bird-like virus that learned to adapt to humans. So we think they are really important lessons for what's going on right now in Asia.

KING: Want to bring Sanjay Gupta in to join the discussion. Sanjay?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Dr. Taubenberger, what's striking is that everyone says this will be a really bad flu if it not only kills a lot of people, but also is easily transmitted from human to human.

The question is, is that a totally random process, or is there some way to prevent that from mutating into this killer flu that we're talking about?

TAUBENBERGER: Right. Now, we think that it's really important to understand the genetic basis of how a virus would switch hosts. How would you go from a virus adapted to being in birds to a virus that's adapted to human beings?

And looking at the 1918 virus and looking at other viruses are going to help us work out those mutations, what particular changes are necessary to allow it to move between species.

So what we hope ultimately is the lessons from 1918, in a sense, could be used as a checklist for our surveillance to help us prevent a pandemic from actually occurring. Ultimately, if we actually learn these rules, we might be able to prevent a strain from fully acquiring all the traits it needs to human adapted.

GUPTA: You know, and the thing about it is as well is you're developing a vaccine -- everyone says if the virus keeps mutating, how can you develop a vaccine that's going to work? I mean, the virus could have totally changed by the time the vaccine is actually developed, so how do you beat that?

TAUBENBERGER: Well, that's always the big problem with flu, because as you know, it does mutate so rapidly, especially in response to immune pressures.

So the key is to try to find the strains that are emerging before the development of the vaccine, actually. And if you had some lineage -- the first hope would be to try to stop it from happening in the first place. But if you failed in that, at least have some clue as to what the best strain would be to make a vaccine as rapidly as possible.

KING: I want to ask both the doctors, if you will, this has been discussed quietly within the government, within the medical community. But in the last 48 hours it's getting huge coverage in the news media, many Americans probably hearing about it at least as a serious pandemic threat for the first time.

First to you, Doctor, what should they do? And, Sanjay, jump in -- I assume you're getting e-mails from our viewers saying what is this?

TAUBENBERGER: Well, when we say bird flu, I mean, what the concerns are specifically of these H5N1 strains that have been circulating in Asia for the last seven years that are highly pathogenic for chickens and other birds, but also have killed a number of people in several countries.

And so the first thing to say is that there's no evidence that, that virus has spread into North America or the United States. So far, the outbreaks have occurred in Southeast Asia. But there is some concern that the virus might be spread by migrating birds to other parts of the world.

So what everyone needs to do is, of course, pay attention to what public health officials are saying.

GUPTA: Yes. And, John, one thing -- the right answer to this question about how bad is this is, we really don't know.

I mean, the two things that make this virus particularly bad is if it's a killer -- and we know that it is, it kills about one in two people it infects -- and it's also easily transmittable from human to human -- we don't know if this virus is going to mutate into being a virus that can be spread easily from human to human -- if it is, then I think everyone is going to stand up and be concerned about this. If it isn't, it may be something that just sort of fades out over time, John.

KING: Dr. Sanjay Gupta for us at the CNN Center in Atlanta, Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger here in THE SITUATION ROOM, thank you both. And I suspect we will continue this discussion many times in the weeks and months ahead. And stay with CNN and our Dr. Gupta for continuous updates on the bird flu situation.

And still ahead, the tour boat tragedy. Did the weight of the passengers help cause that boat to capsize? We'll have the latest on the investigation.

Plus, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, what could make their Hollywood romance even more of a spectacle? We'll tell you right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


KING: Quick update for you and the latest pictures of a story we've been tracking throughout the past several hours -- brushfires. They began in Mexico, have jumped across the border into Southern California in the United States. You see the fires burning here.

Several hundred firefighters now trying to bring them under control. Those firefighters on both sides of the border -- in fact, California officials say in some cases crossing back and forth over the border. More than 1,500 acres at risk here, 500 of those acres in the United States at the last update.

We will continue to track this story throughout the day, bring you the latest here on CNN.

And while on that subject, let's look at some helpful resources on the fire on the Internet.

Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton here for that. Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: John, that fire that's threatening San Diego County along the border with Mexico right there -- looking at this site from the USDA, this allows you to track online current fire activity in the United States. You can see the area there of Southern California that we're currently talking about -- specifically San Diego in California, the area there in pink.

This site now is from NOAA, from the National Weather Service. You can see the area in pink highlighted that is currently under a red flag warning. That's because there are strong winds out there, which means that the fire could threaten part of this county. This is an area that we've been talking about in the last couple of week with that other fire, the Topanga fire, that was northwest of L.A. just last week. You can see this area here, shaded in red. That's a high potential fire activity right now.


KING: Abbi Tatton, using the Internet to keep track of that fire. Thank you, Abbi.

Federal investigators are on the job in Lake George, New York, trying to determine why a tour boat capsized on the lake Sunday, killing 20 elderly passengers. The question they're asking today, did weight -- passenger weight -- play a role in the fatal and tragic accident?

Here's CNN's Mary Snow.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, investigators are looking at a number of factors, but they also are trying to do the math. Statistics show, in general, Americans are heavier but also the formula used to the calculate maximum weight constraints and how many passenger on board is outdated. Now investigators want to know if that contributed to the Ethan Allen capsizing.


SNOW (voice-over): Investigators call it scientific road tests. By simulating conditions on a boat similar to the Ethan Allen, they hope to determine if the passengers' weight played a role in the capsizing of the vessel. The current standards assume that the average person on a tour boat like this weighs 140 pounds. The National Transportation Safety Board says the standards are outdated.

MARK ROSENKER, NTSB ACTING CHAIRMAN: Back in -- when this vessel was created, the rules were 140 pounds back in 1966. Clearly, people are a bit heavier today.

SNOW: After a water taxi accident in Baltimore that killed five people last year, the NTSB says it recommended to the Coast Guard that maritime weight standards be increased to an average of 160 pounds for each passenger.

The Coast Guard says it's looking to update it's rules set back in 1960, and hired a contractor a few weeks ago to do just that. In a statement, the agency says the standards weren't changed immediately after the NTSB recommendation in 2004 because -- quote -- "It's something that takes a long time. We need to look at the various impacts on different types of boats and different types of industries."

One industry that has changed its weight standards is airlines. That happened after a small commercial plane crashed in Charlotte in 2003, killing 21 people. Airline industry officials say the cause was a flight control rigging problem, but weight played a role.

BASIL BARIMO, AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION: It really just exacerbated an already bad situation. What we saw though was the aircraft was, I believe, tail heavy. And as the nose started to climb, the pilot didn't have the flight control authority to push the nose over and hold the airplane level.

SNOW: The FAA has added 10 pounds to its weight standard for commuter aircraft, now assuming 185 pounds for each passenger and luggage, 195 in winter when people wear heavier clothes. For airlines, weight is not just a safety issue, it affects the bottom line.

BARIMO: For example, on a 200 passenger airplane, if we have an additional 10 pounds per passenger that are factored into our analysis, we're talking about 2,000 pounds that we cannot carry that would otherwise be revenue generating cargo.


SNOW: Now, the NTSB says it has been conducting tests throughout the day including tests on a boat similar to the Ethan Allen, putting about 8,000 pounds on it. That's 50 passengers weighing 160 each -- John.

KING: Mary Snow, tracking the investigation for us in New York. Thank you, Mary.

Lou Dobbs getting ready for his show coming up at the top of the hour. Lou, tell us what you're working on.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: John, thank you. At 6:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN, we will be reporting on an astonishing security breach by illegal aliens of one of this country's most sensitive and supposedly secure military bases.

Also, the Supreme Court considering the very difficult issue of whether terminally ill patients can end their own lives. My guest tonight is a woman fighting terminal cancer. Testifying before the Supreme Court, she says the federal government should respect her right to die when she chooses.

And we will be talking with one of the world's leading economic thinkers and social critics, who says globalization is dead. John Ralston Saul will be our special guest here tonight.

Please join us for all of that and more at the top of the hour. Now, back to you, John.

KING: Thank you, Lou. And up ahead in THE SITUATION ROOM, a CNN exclusive, a growing drug epidemic taking a toll on children, innocent bystanders in a national crackdown.

Plus, a celebrity surprise. Reports of a major development for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.


KING: U.S. drug authorities are struggling to contain the growing methamphetamine epidemic.

Our Brian Todd recently had exclusive access as authorities in southern Michigan took part in a nationwide sweep aimed at shutting down meth labs. He found that behind the drug's obvious toll on users, children are obviously paying a price.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We approach the house in a government helicopter. Our DEA contact says agents have just seized a suspected methamphetamine lab. Our first view from the air, it looks like a nice house in a pretty setting, with police, fire crews and hazmat teams are swarming.

(on camera); Agents say this scene is typical, an obscure house in the middle of the countryside. When law enforcement teams entered this house not long ago, they say they found an active meth lab, the drug still cooking. They didn't find the suspects, but there was a large family inside, including four children.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why don't we go over and sit by the bike, OK?

TODD (voice-over): The children seem to think it's an adventure, an adventure that includes shedding their clothes, decontamination and donning of scrubs. Some don't have much clothing to begin with.

These children could have just been exposed to some meth making ingredients that would literally make your head spin. Aside from the cold medication ephedrine, throw in a type of ammonia, phosphorous, and strong solvents like acetone or starter fluid, sometimes brake fluid, just some of the toxic ingredients heated during the cooking process. One veteran police officer has seen what it does to children.

SGT. DOUG HAMMERBERG, KALAMAZOO POLICE: The chemicals line the walls, they line the ducts -- the air ducts in the house. And that's -- all those chemicals these children are breathing. And it will affect them for the rest of their lives. They will have respiratory problems. They will have health issues. They'll have, you know, ADD.

TODD: That's if they avoid another hazard.

JOE, FORMER METH TRAFFICKER: If you have any scratches in your glassware, stuff like that, the whole thing can go up on you, which results in fire.

TODD: This man, who we will call Joe, is a former meth addict and trafficker who is now a police informant. For more than 20 years, law enforcement agents say, he'd sell to anyone, not much caring if families like this were on the periphery.

JOE: I've been a predator my whole life.

TODD: Now that he's been turned, detoxed and cooperating for about three years, does he have any remorse?

JOE: Yes, I wish I hadn't gotten caught. Would I still be doing it today? Oh yes. Oh yes.

TODD: Back at the house, the owner, who we call Susan and who gave us permission to take pictures, tell police the suspect they were looking for had rented a room from her. She said she had no idea he might have been cooking meth.

(on camera): Why are you scared?

SUSAN, HOUSED METH SUSPECT: Because I don't know what's going to happen. You know, and the house is tore apart now. And I don't where he's at. And I know he's here.

TODD: Are you afraid that he might come back and do something to your family?

(voice-over): Inside, law enforcement agents in protective suits have had to take swift action just to ventilate and try to get the fumes out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We broke out the glass doors, opened the windows, so we could ventilate the fumes out of here.

TODD: Later, we pressed Joe a little harder about children caught up in this epidemic.

JOE: Shame on those people that would put their children in jeopardy.

TODD: (on camera): Anything else you can say about that, because we saw a lot of them?

JOE: Well then, just (EXPLETIVE DELETED). I have got no use for them.

TODD: (voice-over): Small consolation about these children leaving a home that one agent says may have to be condemned.


KING: That's tough.

And Brian Todd joins us now live. You brought something along to signify what the toll that some kids exposed to this.

TODD: Look John, they come across kids so often in these raids that one officer in the Detroit field division of the DEA came up with this kit. On his own, he just made this up. He gives this to children whenever they come across them. It's called a child decon kit.

First, you have got to pull out this chart which actually gives a law enforcement officer a kind of primer on how to deal with kids at these scenes. Then, they each get a set of scrubs that are child size. You can open it up and they have sizes and these things that fit kids that we saw in the piece.

You know, they outfit them with this, because the kids -- the toxic chemicals are so horrible that they had -- the kids have to shed their clothing. Then they give them a stuffed animal. They give all this stuff to the kids in these kits to make the experience a little less traumatic who are involved in this. And the DEA now is thinking about it, just making this a piece of standard equipment because this is happening all over the country.

KING: That's an interesting response to a sad, sad problem. A great look at that over the last few days. Thank you, Brian.

TODD: Thank you.

KING: And just ahead, how about this description of the dangerous home intruder? It had beady eyes and a very long tail. Coming up, what happens when the crook is really a crocodile. Sounds like a job for the crocodile hunter, and you will meet one right here after the break.


KING: Now, if you thought the romance between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes was already creating a buzz, just wait until you hear what's happening with them now.

With that story, our CNN Zain Verjee at the CNN center in Atlanta. Zain?

VERJEE: John, you remember right, when Tom Cruise jumped up and down on Oprah's couch, right, celebrating his romance with Katie Holmes?

KING: I remember crying...


VERJEE: Yes, addicted to Oprah that you are.

Well, there actually could be a lot more of that because he and Holmes reportedly are expecting a baby. Cruise's spokeswoman Lee Anne DeVette tells "People" magazine that the couple are very excited about having their first child, and their families are excited as well. But she wouldn't say how far along the pregnancy is, or even if Holmes and Cruise know whether they will have a boy or a girl.

The 43-year-old actor and the 26-year-old actress have been dating since April. They famously got engaged at the top of the Eiffel Tower in June.

Now, the spokeswoman DeVette, John, says no wedding date has been set. So, that's the big news today.

KING: Big news, indeed. Thank you, Zain.

And stay with us for this one, Zain. What would you do if you came home to find a crocodile in your garage? For many in Florida, there's only one thing to do, call a crocodile hunter.

My next guest wrestled a cranky carnivore just today. Todd Hardwick is on the phone from Florida to tell us who won. I assume, Todd, because you are on the phone, you won. Talk about this remarkable event.

TODD HARDWICK, CROCODILE HUNTER: Well obviously it's our goal to win these situations and bring the crocodile back to a safe environment as well as give the homeowners back their garage.

KING: And how do you do it? Just -- I assume this is something you practice. But we're watching the remarkable video of the last incident (ph). Walk us through it a bit.

HARDWICK: Well, basically, we catch hundreds and hundreds of alligators down here in Florida. But a crocodile is a very different situation. We don't see them that often. And we certainly don't see them in somebody's garage. This may be, though, a trend as the crocodile continues to make a comeback.

But as you can see, they are quite ferocious when cornered and out of their element -- their element being the water. So, it is dangerous. This animal is over nine feet in length and approximately 200 to 300 pounds. And it was potentially dangerous not only for the homeowners, but any family pets, cats, anything coming across this animal's path was at potential risk.

KING: He looks a little hungry and a little feisty to me there.

If I get home and I find a crocodile in my garage, do I find you in the yellow pages? And what do you charge? By the hour, by the tooth?

HARDWICK: Basically this one today was a courtesy to the police department. They received an emergency call referencing this crocodile, which actually at the time was thought to be a gator. And it was just a courtesy that we extended to them. They are not quite used to having to handcuff a crocodile. So, I went out and took care of this for them. And the crocodile is currently out in the remote area of southern Florida doing what crocodiles do best.

KING: What is that crocodiles do best?

HARDWICK: Find something for dinner.

KING: All right. Todd Hardwick, thank you. And thank you for sharing your remarkable story on. That beats standing here for three hours in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll tell you that. Hunting crocodiles.

And remember, we're right in THE SITUATION ROOM every Wednesday afternoon from 3:00 to 6:00 pm Eastern. I'm John King.

LOU DOBBS TONIGHT starts right now. And Lou is in New York.