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The Situation Room

Firestorm in California

Aired October 23, 2007 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, the breaking news. We're watching the firestorm. More than a half a million people forced to flee their homes and more than a thousand of those homes already destroyed, as Southern California going up in flames -- big chunks of it.

Also, beyond the flames, choking smoke, dust, poisonous gases -- those who haven't fled are urged to stay indoors.

Is there any, any relief in sight?

And fires and floods both tied to ferocious winds. California's disaster is America's worst since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Now, residents of another city take shelter in a stadium.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Disaster is unfolding in California right now. More than a dozen wildfires, fanned by high winds, burning out of control, prompting the largest evacuation the United States has seen since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Hundreds of homes, from mountain cabins to hillside mansions, have already been destroyed. At least 13 major fires are burning across seven counties in California -- stretching from the desert to the mountains to the sea.

Among the latest developments we're watching, we've just learned that President Bush will visit Southern California Thursday for a firsthand look at the devastation. There is also word just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM that two fires are now burning on the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Southern California. More than half a million people are under mandatory evacuation orders in San Diego County alone. That's more than the entire population, by the way, of Luxembourg.

More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed. Two people have been killed. And the size of the devastation is simply hard to believe. More than 361,000 acres have burned. That's more than twice the size of all of New York City and eight times the size of Washington, D.C.

Not everyone is following the evacuation orders. Our affiliate, KFMD, talked to one man who lost his last home in the devastating Cedar Fire four years ago. He's staying behind, determined not to go through that again.

Look at this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've been out here all night fighting these fires, basically, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I live across the canyon and although I caught hell from my wife for staying behind -- she left with our four young kids and is staying in a hotel down in the city, San Diego. And I stayed behind because we had lost a house in the Cedar Fire and the few possessions that I was able to take from that house are here at this house. And I didn't want to lose those few possessions, plus all the other memorabilia that we've accumulated since then.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's certainly a risky move staying behind, especially when there's mandatory evacuations in place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had packed up what I could in my car, and if it got, too, risky I was planning on leaving. But we have a lot of defensible space, from a fire standpoint, around our house. And this was verified by a fire captain who came and did a survey and looked over our house. So I didn't feel like we were in -- like I was in great risk.


BLITZER: Our heart goes out to that individual right there.

I'm going to show you some pictures that are just coming in. These are live pictures. This is the parking lot outside Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. It's the home of the NFL San Diego Chargers. But right now, they're providing provisions -- they're giving out things to people -- evacuees who have come to this stadium.

Sean Callebs is outside of Qualcomm Stadium right now.

You're watching all of this unfold -- Sean, update our viewers on what's happening there, because I take it thousands and thousands of people have showed up at the stadium for help.

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. There have been thousands of people -- a steady stream of people pouring in here throughout the day. The information we've been receiving, somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people are calling this a temporary home -- not so much out here on the outside of the stadium. But if you look inside and the concourse there, there are scores of cots set up. You can see entire families just squeezing into whatever area they can.

But the good news out here, the sun has gone behind the stadium. So the oppressive heat has let up a little bit. We have been told by the organizers here that the one item that they dearly need is ice -- especially for kids. There's a school set up here. There's also a day care center. I want to show you one other item over here. There is no shortage of volunteers. This is the board where the assignment comes in. And then if we just look back down this way, look at all these volunteers, Wolf, just lined up eager to do tasks. And we're talking tasks such as pick up trash or take food to the individuals in the command center. That is what we're hearing.

I think a lot of people are looking at this athletic stadium and thinking back a couple of years to what played out in Houston after the hurricane blew through the New Orleans area. A dramatic difference. I think that you talked about it in the previous hour. FEMA learned a very painful lesson, a very difficult lesson. They've got a lot of troops on the ground here, a lot of activity early. And, also, there's been so much activity here, Wolf, to keep this crowd entertained, to keep what is going on outside this stadium off their minds. And that, they say, is extremely key -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The sanitation inside that stadium -- we remember what happened that Superdome in New Orleans.

I take it it's a lot different. It's clean, it's safe, it's healthy, is that right?

CALLEBS: Exactly right. You know, it's -- the restrooms that are open are the same restrooms that fans going to a Chargers' game on Sunday would have access to. There is one sign that says, look, this isn't a game -- clean up after yourself. So that is about the only difference.

BLITZER: Sean, thanks very much.

Dan Simon is in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood in San Diego -- near San Diego. He's had to leave one area because of some breathing problems -- Dan, you're joining us on the phone right now.

Tell our viewers where you are, what's going on and what's going on with your ability to breathe air out there.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm actually in an Albertson's grocery store. I'll be honest, this is actually the first opportunity we've been able to leave the scene today. And the crew and I were grabbing something to drink, grabbing some food. But it's also a chance for us to talk to some of the folks in the community. And you get the sense, when you talk to people here at the grocery store, that they are getting very frustrated.

I just spoke to a couple. They know that their house is OK. They're desperate to get back there. But police -- they won't let them into their neighborhood. And they were staying at a hotel last night. They gave up their room because they thought they were going to be able to go home. But at this point, they absolutely have nowhere to go. And so they're just sitting here at a picnic table, basically, inside the store, just trying to figure out what they're going to do tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What's it like, Dan, to breathe that air, which is obviously so full of smoke and who knows what else?

SIMON: It's really tough. You know, we've been covering this story since Sunday morning. We were in Malibu covering the fires there, but then we came to San Diego. So, you know, after a while you just kind of need to get into your car and you need to go into a clean environment. You've got to put your mask on because, at the end of the day, you feel like you've just been at a bar for the last 10 hours or -- you know that feeling when you've just been breathing in smoke all day?

It feels just like that. And it's just -- it's just unrelenting.

BLITZER: All right, Dan, be careful out there.

Good luck.

We'll check back with you.

More than a thousand homes in California already have been destroyed by the flames. But smoke, gas and dust in the air can be deadly. Children, the elderly and those with heart and lung disease are at the greatest risk right now. Even miles from the flames, outdoor gym classes have been canceled and healthy adults are being urged to stay indoors. The San Diego Chargers also moved their practice to Arizona because of the deteriorating air quality. They had to get out of town and get out of town quickly.

Will these superheated winds die down?

Can firefighters and choking residents count on a break in the weather?

Let's turn to our meteorologist, severe weather expert Chad Myers, for the latest on the forecast.

What is it -- Chad?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, the winds are dying down a little bit, Wolf. We're not seeing the 45 and that 55 mile per hour gusts that we had yesterday, and certainly not the 100 mile per hour gusts up at Point Mugu that we had on Sunday afternoon.

But you can -- you were talking about the smoke in the air. You can see it from the satellite picture, from Malibu and L.A. The only saving grace is that it's actually blowing from east and then offshore. Because if this was blowing onshore -- and that wouldn't be a Santa Ana event -- but if it was blowing onshore, then all of that smoke would be in the Inland Empire and probably all of the way to Phoenix by now.

So this is the area that is going to see the smoke and the real breathing problems tonight. And let me tell you, rarely, can I ever show you smoke on a radar. But the smoke is so thick that the radar thinks it's raining. San Bernardino, all the way up to the fires up here. And this is where all the Lake Arrowhead Fire. There's also the Slide Fire up there and Grass Valley. And then back down here to Oceanside and toward South Beach and Solano Beach and down into San Diego, a lot of smoke blowing offshore.

We had some pictures earlier of KABC. I know you showed those pictures, Wolf. And it almost looked like a volcano was going up.

Did you notice how there was smoke and then all of a sudden there was just this puff -- this billow of smoke that went straight up?

Well, everybody here in the newsroom asked, what was that?

Was that something -- was that special?

Did I miss something?

Right there. There is that picture. And I said no.

You know what that was?

That was the fact that the wind, at least for a time, stopped blowing. It stopped blowing that smoke downwind and allowed it to go straight up. That's great news for firefighters. At least we're seeing some break in the smoke at this point -- some breaks in the wind, because we have not seen that for the past 72 hours. All of these fires, like you're talking about, there's no way to get your handle on how large an area we're talking about here, Wolf. It is huge -- all the way from Mexico all the way up to almost Santa Barbara.

BLITZER: And how high does the smoke actually -- these clouds, that dramatic picture, how high do they go?

Because helicopters are trying to fly and drop water. Planes are trying to fly.


BLITZER: Clearly, that smoke could have a devastating impact.

MYERS: That's about five or six miles from the John Wayne Airport. And I would say that puff of smoke is at least 10,000 feet. Planes being diverted around that smoke. But planes are still landing at SNA -- John Wayne, at least at this point. We don't know how long that's going to last with that smoke now piling up right over Orange County -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a devastating scene.

All right, Chad, we'll get back with you.


BLITZER: Chad Myers watching this.

Let's go back to Jack Cafferty.

He's got The Cafferty File.

He's watching this unfold, as well -- Jack. CAFFERTY: Wolf, the U.S. military stepping in to help fight these California wildfires, as well. They're offering up equipment. The Navy, for example, offering an Aegis cruiser, a guided missile destroyer, two fast frigates -- all to support the evacuation efforts. Half a million people ordered to evacuate their homes.

The Marines have offered a battalion of 800 stationed out of Camp Pendleton to help fight the fires. The Navy and the Marines providing additional aircraft and fire trucks.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called about 1,500 National Guardsmen up. Some National Guard troops already stationed at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, where there are thousands of fire evacuees.

The military is doing its part, too, to provide shelter to some of the more than 500,000 people told to evacuate their homes. We have sailors abandoning their Southern California barracks to make room for evacuees. Other naval bases have set up cots and tents for civilians, as well. The Pentagon is working on a FEMA request to use a military installation in the area as a staging area for medical and relief supplies.

So the question is this -- what is the appropriate role for the United States military when it comes to the California wildfires?

E-mail your thoughts on that to or go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

And still ahead, the California residents documenting the disaster hitting their communities with their own cameras and their own cell phones. We're going to show you some of the gripping images of fire in the skies and neighborhoods covered in ashes.

She says the inferno is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's biggest crisis. My interview with the California first lady, Maria Shriver. She'll tell us what you can do to help Californians right now.

And as San Diego residents take shelter in a football stadium, there are eerie similarities to New Orleans when Katrina hit.

This time is emergency management up to the job?

Stay with us.



BLITZER: New I-Reports of the raging California fires are pouring into THE SITUATION ROOM by the minute.

Let's bring back Abbi Tatton.

She's watching this. And what are you seeing right now, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Spring Valley, Chula Vista, Irvine -- all these places, resident evacuating, people sending in their images. They're evacuating with their digital cameras, video cameras on hand.

Look at the scene here. This is in Lake Forest, California last night.

Bobby Myers sent this in to CNN's I-Report. He said the fire there came so quickly, the police were running from door to door, forcing the residents to evacuate. He said it was like raining embers -- the embers coming from the fire jumping from backyard to backyard, people running around with hoses, trying to put the fires out.

Shie Rozhov here -- now we're going north, this is Canyon Country, north of Los Angeles. He described the speed of the flames coming down that hill toward his neighborhood. Shie says that he has evacuated not once, but twice -- first from this neighborhood to his girlfriend's parents' house and then again, as the flames approached there. He said no flames right now, but he's ready to leave again, if need be.

Not everyone is evacuating. These are pictures here from Maha Calderon, a professional photographer in Carlsbad, California. A voluntary evacuation order there. But she and her husband have decided not to go. She said the roads have just been too busy. About 50 percent of her neighbors have stayed behind.

Wolf, the place to send the images.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

President Bush today authorized federal aid to seven counties in California declared emergency areas by the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who certainly has his hands full.

And joining us now, the first lady of California, Maria Shriver.

Thanks, Maria, very much for coming in.

I call you Maria because I've known you for a long time. We go way back to when you were working for NBC News.

Let's talk a little bit about these fires.

Is this the worst crisis your husband -- the governor -- has faced since taking office?

MARIA SHRIVER, CALIFORNIA FIRST LADY: It is, certainly, the biggest crisis on his watch. And I think he's handled it, so far, beautifully. He's there. He's in command. He spent the night in San Diego last night. This is day three of the fires, as you know. It started in Malibu and it's just grown and grown. Obviously, the winds affect it dramatically. But we have the best firefighters, I think, in the nation. Neighboring states have deployed equipment and firefighters. So we're getting people out. So far, there hasn't been a major loss of life. We've only lost one person, which is still a tragedy. But things could, obviously, be much worse. But we have lost hundreds of homes and thousands more are threatened.

So this is a minute by minute situation.

BLITZER: Are you getting the help from the federal government that you need?

Hundreds of thousands of evacuees -- these are the most evacuees since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And we see the pictures over at Qualcomm Stadium, what's happening in San Diego.


BLITZER: Is FEMA stepping up to the plate, the federal government coming to your assistance?

SHRIVER: Well, my husband spoke a couple of times yesterday to the president. And he told me that he had been very solicitous and said anything you need, we will make it available. Secretary Chertoff flew out here last night. He's on the ground today. We have gotten some help from Marines at Camp Pendleton. San Diego is a military community, as you know.

So, so far, the federal government has stepped up. And I think they'll be ask to step up in many ways. They've declared the state a disaster area. And, as you know, that helps with FEMA after the fact.

But right now, we have to focus on evacuating people, making sure they're taken care of in those locations. As you mentioned, there are thousands and thousands of people -- and, as you well know, you can be prepared and then this happens and things go right, some things go wrong. And you have to be willing to adjust on a minute by minute basis -- people are sick, they don't have medication, they have animals, they have small children. All kinds of things happen in a situation like this. And this is where leadership comes in.

BLITZER: Our hearts go out -- and people all over the country are responding.

Is there anything special that people who are watching right now, Maria, can do to help those in need right now in California?

SHRIVER: Well, I think, Wolf, certainly organizations like the American Red Cross, different church groups, they need money. That's the quickest, easiest way to help right now because, as you mentioned, several hundred thousand people have been evacuated. There are thousands of people without any lodging. So these evacuation centers need money. They need food. They need cots. They need blankets. They need to help people rebuild their lives.

But I think the best way right now is to send donations. You can earmark them, in some instances, for people -- victims of the Southern California wildfires. Organizations like Save The Children are on the ground. You can go to, which is directing people to ways that they can be of assistance. And we're asking Californians who don't need to be on the road to stay off of the road, to limit their cell phone use so that those who are actually working the fires can use the lines that they need. We're also talking to elderly people to not go out because the air quality, obviously, is bad.

I'm also asking Californians to reach out and connect with their neighbors. Find out if there -- if you know people in the areas that have been affected. Check on them. Have neighbors check on them. This -- I often talk about the power of we in this state. We're 38 million strong and there's something all of us could do to help our fellow Californians who are in crisis.

And this is going to be a long road. You know, everybody is focused on this story today, but this is going to be a story that will be unfolding the rest of the week, the rest of the month and for months and months -- and even years to come.

BLITZER: Maria Shriver, the first lady of California, speaking with me earlier.

If you would like to help victims of the wildfire ravaging Southern California, you can, through our Impact Your World initiative. Just go to to take action right now. A lot of you probably want to try to help.

Our Ted Rowlands has been flying over the fires with the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's going to join us next.

Also, the federal government springing into action on the California wildfires.

What did emergency officials learn from the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita debacle that are helping them right now?

Plus, a dramatic confrontation between a firefighter and a homeowner who simply doesn't want to leave. We're going to show it to you.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: These are live pictures you're seeing now from California. You can see the smoke, the devastation. They're trying to stop these fires from getting close to some of these homes. But there are a lot of homes in danger. Certainly, the smoke alone is causing a lot of anguish, as well as some painful, serious problems involving breathing.

We'll get back to the California fires in a moment. Let's check in with Carol Costello.

She's monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Carol.


Congressman Pete Stark now apologizing for his comments about President Bush and the Iraq War. The California Democrat said last week that Mr. Bush was sending young people to Iraq to "to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement."


REP. PETE STARK (D), CALIFORNIA: I want to apologize to my -- first of all, my colleagues, many of whom I have offended; to the president; his family; to the troops that may have found in my remarks, as were suggested in the motion that we just voted on.


COSTELLO: Stark is referring to a censure vote against him that preceded his apology. That failed to pass.

The Space Shuttle Discovery on its way right now to the International Space Station. The late morning launch went off without a hitch, despite weather concerns. Discovery is delivering a module to give the Space Station extra room to accommodate new labs. The 14-day mission is being called the most complex since NASA started work on the Space Station.

On Venezuela, student protesters clash with police in the streets of Caracas. Thousands of young people voicing opposition to constitutional changes that would let President Hugo Chavez run for re-election indefinitely. Some of the students threw bottles. Police responded with tear gas and there were also violent confrontations between the demonstrators and Chavez supporters.

New Orleans is drying out. More than eight inches of rain fell on the city, closing schools and government offices. Drainage pumps just could not keep up. Businesses were flooded out, including some that just reopened for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

Ooh, that looks frighteningly familiar.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Carol, thank you.

And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, deadly wildfires -- more than a dozen of them consuming hundreds of square miles in Southern California. The flames, at this hour, are still burning out of control.

Also, the number of evacuees growing to more than half a million in San Diego County alone -- the single largest mass evacuation this country has seen since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

And President Bush scheduled to get a firsthand look at the devastation. The White House announcing he'll head out to California on Thursday.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


More than half a million California residents ordered or urged strongly to leave their homes. Not all, though, are leaving willingly.

Watch and listen to this dramatic scene, as one man fights with a firefighter who makes him evacuate.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey! I told you to get out. You need to get out now. We've got hoses up here.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You (INAUDIBLE). I need you to get out (INAUDIBLE). Let's go! Let's go, now!


BLITZER: The San Diego Sheriff's Department says residents of some 350,000 homes have been told to leave. What a story.

And as we showed you, thousands of San Diego area evacuees are now taking shelter a the city's Qualcomm NFL Stadium.

Jeanette Desch (ph) and her daughter Mariah (ph) are among them.

Jeannette, thanks very much for joining us.

Tell us what's going on where you are and what happened to your family.


BLITZER: We may have the wrong name. Are you Kim?

DESCH (ph): I'm Kim.

BLITZER: All right, Kim, sorry. We got bad information, which happens when you're in a breaking news environment.

DESCH (ph): That's OK.

BLITZER: I see you got two young guys over there. Tell us what's going on.

DESCH (ph): Well, we evacuated, let's see, yesterday morning at 4:00 in the morning. We are living in the north Rancho Bernardo Poway area and when the flames came up to where we could see the orange glow at the top of the hill, my husband and I decided, that was it. We beat the mandatory evacuation by just a few minutes and we got out.

BLITZER: And what about your home?

DESCH (ph): At this point, my home is still in tact. My husband has gone up there and he's making sure that there is no, you know, dangerous brush or trees, remove the trees. We had a few fallen trees that could still, you know, pose a significant risk just because they're still fighting a lot of hot spots right around our house.

But right now we're one of the very, very fortunate ones and it's because of the fabulous job the firefighters are doing on an area called High Valley, I believe, because that's the only thing between us and the next fire.

BLITZER: Kim, what is the like to be over there at Qualcomm Stadium, for you and your family?

DESCH (ph): Truthfully I have to say it's one of the most enlightening experiences we've had. The amazing outpouring from the community is, it's heart wrenching. I mean, I'm very lucky. I brought my travel trailer and for all intents and purposes, we're in the lap of luxury compared to what some of these people are going through. But you see all these -- there must be as many volunteers helping out as there are evacuees and they're all just pitching in doing whatever they can it help people out. And all I can say is we're very lucky to have this kind of community, but it's very, very refreshing and enlightening to know that this is what San Diego is really like.

BLITZER: Introduce our viewers to your family, while I have you.

DESCH (ph): Thank you.

BLITZER: No, I want them to meet your family, your kids. Tell us their names.

DESCH (ph): Oh, to meet my family?


DESCH (ph): OK. Well, this is my 8-year-old Brennan (ph) and this is my 12-year-old Garrick (ph) and my husband, of course, is up helping with the fire, protecting the house.

BLITZER: Kim Desch (ph) and her beautiful family, good luck to you. Good luck to your husband who is out there. Good luck to all the people in California who are going through a really awful situation.

DESCH (ph): Thank you.

BLITZER: Half a million people forced to flee, 350,000 homes.

Let's get a closer look at what's burning and where. Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM watching this for us. And it's pretty devastating when you think about it. Your heart goes out to these people out there.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And there are just so many people packed into this area and it's such a huge area.

Look at this. This is southern California. I know you've been looking at this, but it's worth looking at again. Sunday it looked like this. Monday, look at the smoke pouring out here and now look at what we've got, that much smoke pouring more than 500 miles out to sea and this distance from up here above Malibu all the way down here. It's about 150 miles. Look at this. This is Malibu, Los Angeles, San Diego, about 150 miles or so to drive that coast and it's important to bear in mind, if you don't know the area well. This really is a megalopolis that goes all the way through here. It looks like a big distance between but this is full, full, full of millions and millions of people all in that area.

And why is this burning the way it is? If you move in closely, you can simply see why. As we zoom down here on the mountainside, you see all these dark, sort of gray areas up in here. This is what's happening in those areas. It's plant growth. In many cases a plant called chaparral or it's scrub oaks or it's the low grasses that grow with it. This sort of plant growth here can get you know two, three, four yards tall, a little over your head in many cases. It's densely packed. It grows very, very well when it gets some rain and then it dries out. It's meant to survive for long periods of time, but it does so by being very waxy and very oily. That's how it holds water. So when it starts burning, it starts burning like you can't even imagine and on hillsides like this, you can see how difficult it would be to control it or to stop it and the truth is all they can try to do is hem it off from housing areas like this.

And once the fires really get going as we've seen in so many cases, the result is that the fire no longer even needs those weeds then and starts jumping house to house. That's what's happening throughout this entire megalopolis down here. And that's why really, Wolf, nobody is really safe until this calms down because even with the weeds now, as long as the wind is blowing, the fire is so intense it can jump from one family's home to the next even without the chaparral or the other plants in between them.

BLITZER: What a story. Thanks, Tom. That was an excellent explanation.

We're going to stay on top of this story.

We're also watching some other important news including some serious tensions right now between a NATO ally Turkey and Iraq. The northern part of the country, there is serious fear that the Turkish army could invade northern Iraq. We're going to speak about it.

The British foreign secretary is now in Washington for serious talks with U.S. officials. My interview with the British foreign secretary, that's coming up. Also, we'll go back to Qualcomm Stadium, the home of the NFL San Diego Chargers. There's new information coming out right now about the evacuees, the thousands who have gathered at that stadium.

And we'll show you these live pictures of what is happening in southern California right now. Helicopters and other aircraft trying to deal with this horrible, horrible crisis.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: We want to go right to Ted Rowlands. He's been out with the Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger monitoring this crisis, the worst crisis of Schwarzenegger's tenure as the governor of California, the fires that are raging right now.

Ted, tell us where you are and what you've been doing.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, right now we're at the San Diego airport. We just touched down in the Blackhawk helicopter where we were flying with Governor Schwarzenegger touring the southern half of the state. And from the air it is an unbelievable scene, smoke everywhere. We started in Lake Arrowhead which is north of San Diego, northeast, where hundreds of homes have been lost and now and then came down to San Diego and it is just an unbelievable sight from the air. You get the feeling of the magnitude of it. The governor, from the air, said once people see it, see it from this vantage point, they will understand what we're up against. And right now he's up in another helicopter with Michael Chertoff, who we also had a chance to talk to briefly before they boarded that helicopter.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to check back with you. Ted, thanks very much. We'll stay on top of this story.

But I also want to check into some other important news that's happening right now, including news involving those private security contractors in Iraq, including Blackwater.

Zain Verjee, our state department correspondent, is at the state department.

What are you learning, Zain?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is acting really fast here. Advisers she sent to Iraq made some recommendations on what to do about private contractors and security in Iraq. They've just came out with the report.

Basically the headline is that they say there's got to be a tightening of ground rules on the use of deadly force. They say that if an incident happens again, you've got to have go teams that go straight to the scene, they gather information, they analyze it and they put it down in a report. They also say that they're looking for more cultural sensitivity and training for contractors and also that state department diplomatic security agents will be armed and in charge of any private security convoys that are the contractors are on and are going out on.

The other key thing is oversight here, really. And what you're also going to see, it's already in place, cameras, as well as other surveillance and monitoring devices when convoys go out.


BLITZER: Zain at the State Department; Zain, thanks very much.

And we also have to note that tension along the border between Turkey, a NATO ally, and northern Iraq, that tension is increasing right now.

And joining us now Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband.

Foreign Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: How worried are you that a NATO ally, Turkey, could be at war with Iraq any time soon?

MILIBAND: Well we're very worried about the situation in northern Iraq. Turkey has lost about 30 of its soldiers to terrorism from the PKK. That's a real challenge for the government in Iraq in Baghdad but also for the Kurdish authority in the northern part of Iraq.

BLITZER: So how do you avoid that from escalating into an all- out war, the Turkish troops going into northern Iraq?

MILIBAND: I don't believe that the Turkish government wants to invade northern Iraq. I've spoken to the Turkish foreign minister. The prime minister of Turkey is in the U.K. this week. But they want they want to see is deeds and not just words about tackling PKK terrorism. I think there's been some good news from the government of Iraq who are going to close down the offices of the PKK. I think that's the appropriate response.

BLITZER: And you regard the PKK as a terrorist organization.

MILIBAND: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Just as the U.S. regards it as a terrorist organization. The foreign secretary - the foreign minister, excuse me, of Turkey was in Baghdad and this is what he said.

After his meetings with Iraqi government leaders he said, "We have worked with Iraqi and American governments, but we have not achieved practical results. The problem has only become bigger. The reaction among the Turkish people is one of strong anger." It doesn't look like he's been satisfied by what he heard so far. MILIBAND: Well I spoke to Ali Babacan, the Turkish foreign minister, yesterday. They do want deeds not just words. I think subsequent to that statement, you've seen the Turkish government announce that they're closing down the offices of the PKK. That is the first step to this.

There is a three parts grouping, the U.S., Iraq and Turkey, which works together on these issues. I think that needs to be revitalized as an institution that can give real comfort to the Turks that their interests and interests of their soldiers are being addressed. Because you can understand from the Turkish point of view, they have got demonstrations around the country saying, what are you going to do? I don't believe the Turkish government wants to invade northern Iraq.

BLITZER: But do you believe that the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga or whoever the Kurdish forces are in northern Iraq that they have the will to go out and crack down on fellow Kurds?

MILIBAND: Well, I think that there is a recognition that the PKK are a threat to integrity of the Kurdish parts of Iraq and also a threat to the whole of Iran's reputation in the region and that says to me I met Barham Salih last week, the deputy prime minister of Iraq. He was clear that this was a change for the whole of Iraq that they had to address together in Baghdad and in the north. There's no easy answer to this. It's a very, very mountainous, difficult terrain, but I think that the constitutional settlement in Iraq does give real power to the Kurds in the north and that's the right way forward. The PKK terrorism is not the right way forward.

BLITZER: David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, here in Washington. More of his interview tomorrow in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The U.S. military's role in dealing with the fires in California, we're going to tell you what U.S. troops are doing right now to fight the battle against the California blazes.

And Jack Cafferty has your e-mail on what you think of that and a lot more.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's check in with Lou Dobbs to see what is coming up right at the top of the hour.


LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thank you.

Tonight, we're reporting on the huge firestorms that are raging out of control in southern California. Those fires could turn out to be the worst in the history of that state. Half a million people evacuated. We'll have complete coverage live from southern California. Also tonight, pro-illegal alien senators just can't accept the will of the people on the issue of illegal immigration and border security. Those senators led by Senator Harry Reid resurrecting amnesty, trying to sneak their pro-amnesty legislation through the senate, once again, piece by piece. We'll have a special report on these people. They're people, after all. They are not particularly senators, but they are people.

And the battle over drivers' licenses, the give away Eliot Spitzer has in mind for illegal aliens and the state of New York is intensifying. State lawmakers making a new effort to stop Governor Spitzer from giving away those drivers' licenses. A plan that critics and opponents say would lead to massive voter fraud. Two state lawmakers, one republican, one democrat, fighting to block his plan, will join us.

Please join us for all that, all the day's news and a great deal more at the top of the hour right here on CNN.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Lou. We'll be watching.

The U.S. military is throwing its muscles into the fight against the fires in California, but the troops themselves are also coming under siege.

Let's go to our pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what's the role of the U.S. military in all of this?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, two years after Katrina, this time the U.S. military is taking no chances. This time they're rushing help to the fire lines to the fire sites as fast as they can.

In Colorado, C-130s equipped with fire retardant chemicals head to California to help fight the growing wildfires.

LT. COL. DAVE CONDIT, U.S. AIR FORCE: Any time there's something like this comes up anyway we can help, we're always rearing to go. We have no problems getting volunteers for these kind of missions.

STARR: These massive fires have left the U.S. military both good Samaritan and victim. Some fires broke out on the sprawling 200 square mile Camp Pendleton base just north of San Diego. But that's not stopping the marines from helping evacuees.

GUNNERY SGT. SCOT BECHERER, U.S. MARINE CORPS: We've opened up 650 cots available to people who have been evacuated from their homes in the local area. We're taking in civilians. We've taken in retired marines. We've taken in active duty marines.

STARR: But at the same time, 60,000 marines and family members at Pendleton have been told to pack personal belongings and be ready to leave if the winds shift. And some 550 marines are on standby, ready to help fight the fire. The defense department says it's been ready.

BECHERER: It's been probably the most proactive response to a domestic event that I've seen in my 40 years in uniform.

STARR: Unlike Hurricane Katrina, the military is rapidly delivering supplies, cots and medicine to the thousands of people at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

And, Wolf, in San Diego, some 19,000 additional military families are under evacuation orders. The California National Guard says it's got all the man power it needs to fight the fires, but right now, of course, what everybody needs right now is a change in the weather, Wolf.

BLITZER: It can't happen fast enough. Thanks, Barbara.

Let's go back to Jack. He's got the Cafferty file in New York.


JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The question this hour is what is the appropriate role for the military when it comes to those California wildfires?

Nicholas in St. Louis writes, "As a former serviceman, I took an oath to protect the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Currently I can think of no greater threat to the U.S. than the California wildfires. All available resources must be allocated to assist and protect the citizens of California."

Lauren in Bronxville, New York, "Of course, our troops should be instantly available to be mobilized into combating such a horror as those out of control fires in California. As they should have began to pluck people out of the rising waters in New Orleans with Katrina. But as I see it, the military energies are wasted fighting an endless war abroad. We need these troops home now."

Cathy in Illinois writes, "While there is doubt if the war in Iraq is a just one, obviously, the people in California are battling an enemy and need help. Sometimes our government has a problem in taking care of its own."

Jennifer writes, "The appropriate role for the military is to protect and serve. I'm a military wife who has evacuated Escondido in San Diego's North County while my husband is deployed abroad. The role of every service member is to defend its country whether it's overseas or at home, enemy or natural disaster. This is what they're sworn to do. They are trained and proud to do it. The only regret my husband has is that he's not in the states to help out his fellow Americans in need."

Thomas in San Diego, "My house is just west of the Witch Creek fire in Encinitas not yet in the evacuation zone. I think the role of the military is just as they are doing, lending the equipment that is sorely needed, those big air tankers, some of which only the military have. We taxpayers buy all that equipment from for the military. So why should we not be able to have them used for real emergencies?"

And Steve writes from Camino, California, "The answer, Jack, quite simple, whatever it takes. If our citizens' well being is not national security, then I don't know what is."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to We post more of them online, along with video clips of the Cafferty file.


BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

It was only a couple years ago it was flooding as Hurricane Katrina put the gulf coast under water leaving thousands homeless. Now, fires are driving half a million Californians from their homes. Unlike last time, will they get the help they really need this time?

Let's go back to Carol Costello. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. And you're looking at the parallels between then and now.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. We've been talking about some of those parallels during THE SITUATION ROOM this afternoon.

San Diego County though has handled the evacuation of its citizens pretty well. It has a new Internet-based emergency notification system. That means if you live in San Diego, you got a text message or you got an e-mail or a phone call from the county government telling you to leave. The county government made 270,000 calls and it was very effective.

San Diego County considered a heavenly place to live. It is now hellish. Raging fire charring more than 300,000 acres, people running from their homes as flames swallowed furniture, family pictures, home.

JOHNNY VILLANUEVA, EVACUEE: My wife woke me up at like 12:00 and screaming and yelling, the flames are coming down. So, we just loaded up the car real quick and came down here. We slept in our vehicles. We drove both vehicles and it was, it was just really quick, really quick.

ELIZABETH VILLANUEVA, EVACUEE: I saw it on the mountain, the fire and say, oh, my God and wake up my family because it's dangerous. I was saying, let's go.

COSTELLO: Pictures of Californians driven from their homes are eerily reminiscent of New Orleans pre Hurricane Katrina. Qualcomm Stadium, home of the NFL's Chargers, is filled with evacuees just as the Superdome was in Louisiana.

Strong winds factor in both disasters, too; fuelling the flames in southern California, fueling Katrina into a swirling, howling super storm. HARVEY JOHNSON, FEMA DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR: What you're really seeing here is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership, none of which were present in Katrina.

COSTELLO: And so far he seems to be right. Hundreds of thousands of Californians have fled their homes, obeying mandatory evacuation orders. Frightened by what they're seeing, hearing.

TAMMY MCCALL, EVACUEE: Very scary. You never think that you're going to be in this kind of a position, but, also, you know, it doesn't hit you until you're here with all these wonderful people that it actually happened. We haven't slept. I know my husband, he's been working three days so he's sleeping but other than that, it's really hitting us and we can't sleep.

COSTELLO: While they wait, firefighters do what they can. Take a look at these photographs. You can see walls of flames that will likely spread to despite firefighters' best efforts. Their hope? The mighty Santa Ana winds will stop.

And that's what everyone is hoping for. You're taking a look at live pictures. They're very near houses, once again, Wolf. As you can see, the fire is raging.

I do want to say that there have been some reports of looting. Police have made two arrests, but 600 police officers are out in force. They're working 12-hour shifts with no days off. They're going to try to stem that as the firefighters are going to try to stem those flames.

BLITZER: Carol, thanks. J.T. Alpaugh, our old friend helicopter pilot and reporter, is up in the skies. You've been up in the skies and these pictures that we're seeing right now, J.T., are really amazing. Give us a sense because you've been flying over this area now for hours and hours.

J.T. ALPAUGH, PILOT AND REPORTER: Yes, Wolf. For the last two days we've been flying over the Running Springs area and looking at scenes just like you're looking at right now. Extreme amounts of walls of flame taking home after home and this one here looks like it is about to go, as well. It's just been an unbelievable monster fire, whipped by the Santa Ana winds, blowing anywhere from 40 to 50 miles.

We're getting a little bit of a break in the winds right now, but, still, there is so much fuel up in the San Bernardino Mountains, it's very hard to stop this fire and not enough firefighters to stop these homes from being destroyed.

BLITZER: Those flames seem so eerily close to those homes. It is a foregone conclusion those homes are going to be burnt down?

ALPAUGH: Well right now firefighters are putting strike force protection teams into that area and hopefully they'll try to save that home. But that almost looks like that one may go and we're hoping that it doesn't but we've seen -- you see water drop come in through the top of your screen. That's an Erickson Air-Crane that has a 2,600 gallon tank capacity who just basically might have saved that house. They will probably bring two or three more in behind that, try to douse those flames and save those homes. An amazing amount, the firefighting from the air, an amazing opportunity to save some of these homes. That's the only thing they have. They just don't have the ground personnel to stop those flames.

BLITZER: You saw how the water comes in from that helicopter and just drops it and you're right. Although the flames seem to be picking up right now, what the problem is basically that the winds are still intense and those winds are fanning these flames.

ALPAUGH: The winds have actually died down a little bit today, but there is so much fire and so much fuel out there from the past two days with these wind-swept flames that it's right now it's a fuel and terrain-driven fire. Even though there is some winds, there are still red flag warnings in effect here in southern California until later on this afternoon. But they're not nearly as strong as they were yesterday. There are some concerns, now that all this fire's here, when those Santa Ana winds down out from the north that the winds are going to shift and actually become an onshore push and that's going to change the fire and change directions. So that's what some of the firefighters are concerned with throughout all these fires in southern California.

BLITZER: You have been flying over these areas for a long time reporting on fires and floods and all sorts of other natural disasters.

Here comes some more water that's coming down. It looks like they're really trying to save these homes out there. Have you ever seen anything like this before, J.T.?

ALPAUGH: Well, actually in '93 we had a fire storm come through and we flew over the Malibu fires, very similar. It seems to happen every few years here in southern California. We just have the wildfires that start up with the winds and it's just time and time again and that's why we can't stress enough throughout these areas that people leave a lot of brush clearance between their homes and green belts.

You can see some of the green foliage behind that house, that's all green. That's called a green belt. That is really going to help protect this fire. That is probably the only thing that has protected that fire from taking that home already and those water drops. But time and time again we see it here in southern California.

BLITZER: That house right there which is so close to those flames and our viewers can see it, it looks ominous because those flames are really not that far away, how far away do you think they are, J.T.?

ALPAUGH: Well, I'm looking. That's probably at least 30, 40 feet, Wolf. And we've seen in the past two days in the Lake Arrowhead area and here in Running Springs, I personally watched at least 150 homes burn. And it's just a devastating feeling. Very similar to the feeling we had when we flew over Katrina. It's just there's nothing really you can do and just firefighters are stretched to the finished limits and they're doing the best that they can, but sometimes you just have to sit back and watch these burn and it's just an awful feeling.

BLITZER: I know you have to get back on the air out there. We're going to check back with you. You did excellent work for us today. You've done some excellent work for us during Hurricane Katrina. Our viewers will remember you. J.T. Alpaugh, thanks very much for that.

We're going to stay on top of this story. Clearly, one hour from now when we come back in THE SITUATION ROOM. we'll update you on what is going on. It's a heart, heartbreaking situation. Clearly no end in sight right now. We'll watch these fires together with you and see what happens.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's check in with Lou. He's coming up from New York.