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Special Edition: In the Line of Fire

Aired October 23, 2007 - 20:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: From the desert to the sea, it seems like all of Southern California is burning. Will it get worse before it gets better? That is the question tonight.
It don't look like it could get any worse right now, at least 13 major fires, including this one, in Castaic, north of L.A., along the 5 Freeway. You're seeing lots of smoke from that fire. It's not far from Magic Mountain amusement park. They are burning in seven counties right now, from Santa Barbara, all the way down to the Mexican border, more than 1,000 homes destroyed, more than half-a- million evacuation orders issued. At least two people have lost their lives. Many more have been hurt.

The question now is, what comes next? And that, of course, all depends on the wind and the weather. And we have got the updated forecast ahead.

We're also on the front lines with the firefighters tonight. You will see that in a moment.

Also, thousands of evacuees, they are all here around me at San Diego's football stadium, a very festive atmosphere, you almost would say here, but there is a lot of doubt, people not sure what has happened to their homes. We're going to talk to some of them shortly.

We have got correspondents and crews working stories all across the area tonight, in Rancho Bernardo, Del Mar, Santa Clarita up north, in a chopper with the governor, on the lines with firefighters, from Stevenson Ranch to Rancho, San Diego, a lot to cover in the hour ahead.

Let's begin with a closer look at all the major developments today.


COOPER (voice-over): If there is a hell on Earth, this is it, a scorched Southern California, where wind is sweeping flames and embers across the region, reducing so much of it to ash. The sheer scope of the catastrophe is stunning. And it began with the forces of nature conspiring.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: You have three things come together, very dry areas, very hot weather, and then a lot of wind. And, so, this -- this makes the perfect storm for fire.

COOPER: In Washington, President Bush declared a state of emergency in Southern California, as more than a dozen wildfires rage out of control.

Help is arriving in waves from above, on the ground, an army of firefighters struggling to contain the infernos, Marines and National Guard troops also ready to jump in.

For now, however, it seems a losing battle.

BRUCE CARTELLI, BATTALION CHIEF, SAN DIEGO FIRE DEPARTMENT: Utter devastation. It's probably the worst significant event in my career of 36 years.

COOPER: At night, the flames appear as glowing rivers, flowing as lava across acre after acre. In Los Angeles County, three wildfires raging, destroying luxury mansions in Malibu, the flames also fanning closer to the theme park Magic Mountain. And now the threat is, they could collide to form a single mammoth firestorm.

But the greatest toll is here in San Diego, a massive exodus of more than half-a-million forced from their homes, an unprecedented number, with more than 12,000 finding shelter at Qualcomm Stadium. Two colossal fires here, one called Witch, the other Harris, they're growing each day, becoming even more dangerous.

EBONY BIRD, EVACUEE: It's actually a really dark, smoky overcast outside right now. There's ashes all over the ground, on the car. It's unbelievable.

COOPER: The scale of the disaster is massive, experienced by everyone on a personal level.


COOPER: For the firefighters -- and there are hundreds -- this is war against nature. And it's being waged all around here on the front lines, where they are facing literally walls of flames.

CNN's Rick Sanchez is there. And he joins us now on the phone from Jamul, California.

Rick, what are you seeing?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: We are just on the southern edge of the Harris fire here, Anderson. And what we're looking at is smoke just billowing from the ground, as well as flames now that seem to be getting real close to a ridge.

And that's the real concern here. Firefighters have been telling me that they're watching this and they're called in strike teams to try and see if they can stop, it, although, you know, it's a risk assessment as they go.

Here's the danger. When this fire gets to the top of the ridge, if the wind pushes it over -- and it does look the wind is pushing it in that direction -- it will go into an area known as Rancho San Diego. That's where there are some couple thousand homes. And the folks in that area have been asked to evacuate, but some of them have decided to stay, nonetheless. They say they just don't want to leave the area.

Their homes are being threatened by this fire right now. I'm standing in what is called a bowl. It's an elevated valley between two hills. And there's smoldering fire where it went through last night to my left. And, as I look to my right, I see the flames and I see the fire approaching the ridge now.

I talked to a homeowner a little while ago on that side. And I said, look, the firefighters are saying you should leave this area. It's a mandatory evacuation.

She started crying. She started saying she doesn't want to go. She said she's been in this home for 17 years. She doesn't want to leave. And she certainly doesn't want to leave her animals behind. So, a lot of tough decisions are being made here by the residents.

And firefighters obviously have their own decisions to make. Which areas do they attack with full force and which ones do they just monitor? And, in some cases, they have to just watch as some of the homes burn -- Anderson.

COOPER: And, Rick, how hard is it to get to some of these areas where these fires are?

SANCHEZ: Well, I'm standing right now about a football field away from the flames. And, obviously, I'm not downwind of them here. So, I'm looking at it.

And, from time to time, they just start to flare up again. And they move. They shift. Sometimes, they're stronger than other times. It is probably about 15 minutes from San Diego proper by car. And that's the southern edge of the Harris fire.

I think a lot of folks have been following the different fires. This is one of biggest ones here. This has already scorched 70,000 acres. And it has also threatened a lot of homes in this area, already taken some homes as well.

When I ask firefighters, Anderson, well, how much of this have you been able to contain, they said something between 1 percent and 5 percent. So, really, that's not a lot when you do the math.

COOPER: Rick Sanchez, we will continue checking in with you throughout this hour. Stay safe.

What is so surreal about this, Rick is just a few miles from where we are now, the situation here at Qualcomm, where some 12,000 evacuees have sought safety, could not be any different. Though there's a lot of doubt about people's homes, people are unsure, there is a sort of festive atmosphere. And we're going to talk more with some of the people here.

Jay Alan is the deputy director of homeland security for the state of California. He is with us now on the phone from Sacramento.

What can you tell us about the Castaic fire, which we are seeing an awful lot from there right now?

JAY ALAN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATION, CALIFORNIA OFFICE OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Well, Anderson, it is part of the bigger Ranch fire south and southwest of Castaic on I-5 near the Grapevine.

And folks who are familiar with that route know the Grapevine is a very landmark area on the highway. And our hearts go out to everyone there as well, because we're battling the same kind of conditions as elsewhere in Southern California right now, about 54,000 acres on fire there, only 10 percent containment.

Hundreds of people have been evacuated. There's a number of small communities in that area, the canyons, the Chiquita, the Val Verde, the Holser, and the Hasley Canyon. So, we have had hundreds of evacuations in there. So far, only -- last report, only three residences and four outbuildings have been destroyed. But there are a few other scattered buildings that have been affected as well.

And others still remain in danger. And, again, it's -- it is -- the weather is the primary factor. We're trying to get the resources there. The governor' office and the state is doing everything in its power. And -- and folks are coming together throughout the state to do that and throughout the West. But, again, we are at the mercy of the weather in much of this.

COOPER: Alan -- what area concerns you the most right now, Mr. Alan?

ALAN: Well, Anderson, that's a great question. There are so many out there that do.

This is one that does as well, because a number of buildings remain at risk. And, even more so, there are still places in the south where, potentially, you know, lives are still at risk. And that's the number-one concern for us here, the governor's office and everyone in the first-responders, law enforcement, the government community. And just, as people of California, that still remains the number-one priority, making sure people are safe, making sure property is protected, trying to get the animals safe, and then trying to get people the things they need, those folks especially who have been evacuated.

We will get a handle on this at some point. We're trying as best we can. And we just hope Mother Nature starts cooperating here. We're hearing encouraging things about the weather forecast later tomorrow. And we all hope that comes true.

COOPER: But, at this point, you don't feel you fully have a handle on it?

ALAN: Well, we have got a handle on it as best we can. You're out there. And you and as Rick just said earlier in his report, each time you think you see the worst of the devastation, and see massive flames, you look somewhere else and the flames are even more massive.

I'm looking at your pictures right now. And this is something we haven't seen maybe ever in California. And we won't know until it is all done, but it is obviously something we don't want to see. We are doing everything we can to get it under control. But, with 30-, 40-, 60-, 80-mile-an-hour winds, it is a tough road to hoe.

COOPER: Tough, indeed, and a lot of good men and women, as we're looking at right now, pictures, men and women at work on these fire lines, trying to put it out.

Jay Alan, appreciate you taking the time with us. It is a busy time for you.

We are going to be going to a short break. You can feel this fire is clearly off the charts. And one of the reasons why are these hot desert winds.

We're going to take a look at that. And Chad Myers is going to join us for the forecast.

Also, a 360 exclusive with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger touring the damage by air with CNN's Ted Rowlands.

You're watching a special edition of 360, "In the Line of Fire."



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






COOPER: Well, that's one of the problems, people refusing to leave their homes. Even though there is a mandatory evacuation, they can't actually be physically forced to leave their homes. And because people are not leaving, you have firefighters who have to spend a lot of time going house to house, trying to get those people to leave.

It eats up valuable time that they could be using to fight those fires, say authorities.

Half-a-million people so far told to get out. President Bush will be coming to Southern California on Thursday. Here at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, there are some 12,000 people here. They're getting food. There's access to medical care. This is a very different situation than we saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

We're going to have details on President Bush's visit in -- shortly, though. He spoke with Governor Schwarzenegger, we're told, this afternoon.

The governor toured some of the destruction late today with CNN's Ted Rowlands, who joins me now -- Ted.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, it is amazing to see the level of destruction from the air.

We hooked up with the governor at Lake Arrowhead, went up in a Black Hawk helicopter, toured the devastation there. And the biggest thing which catches your eye -- and this is what the governor said, too, that he wants the president to come out to see this -- is the amount of smoke that has covered the entire southern half of this state.

When we left Arrowhead, we came into the San Diego area and could see the different fires from the vantage points in the air. You can see the devastation. And, down on the ground, the governor also toured areas at Lake Arrowhead and here at -- in San Diego, at Qualcomm specifically.

We were also with the governor when he contacted President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After that, we talked to him about his biggest concern. He said he wants to be on the ground during this, and manage it hands on. He also says, he's concerned, as you might imagine, for the people that lost their homes.


SCHWARZENEGGER: ... ownership of the home, and then it is gone, bang, like this. And they're left with nothing. And their personal belongings are gone, things that have emotional value for them. So, I feel really, you know, terrible for those losses.

And this is why I think it is important that we have to do everything we can.


ROWLANDS: Let's face it. A disaster of this magnitude can make or break a political career. I assume the governor is very aware of that. He said to me that he wants to be here during this entire process, so that, if anything comes up -- he pointed out a couple things -- baby formula here at Qualcomm Stadium. He said, yesterday, they ran into some people that needed medical attention. They got it right away.

The fires are one disaster. Having thousands out of their homes could create other disasters. They're very cognizant of that. And they want to be on the ground here and make sure it doesn't happen.

And it seems like -- we haven't heard any complaints -- that, so far, so good in terms of the response from the federal and state governments -- Anderson.

COOPER: Well, the fires are unprecedented, and they may become even more destructive with each passing hour, or conditions could improve.

For the latest on where the disaster stands right now, and where it may be heading, let's to go CNN severe weather expert Chad Myers.

Chad, what are you looking at?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Anderson, I'm looking at a breathing system, a Santa Ana system, the high pressure that's over the mountains, a breathing system.

As I push the button here, I want you to think of this as the air mass. When the sun hits it, it gets bigger, because warm air rises. Then, at night, it cools. Then it gets warm again, and then it cools. And every time it cools, the air goes out one more time. That's what those arrows are indicating.

And the air is going to go out tonight, and the wind are going to pick up. And the air will come back in tomorrow afternoon, and the winds will die down. And then, tomorrow night, it will do the same thing.

Now, our winds, our threshold has come down on. On Sunday, our biggest gust was about 101, Point Mugu, last night 75, today about 50, tomorrow about 30. And that's some good news. It's going to come and it's going to go and there are going to be gusts. And, yes, a 30- mile-per-hour gust can still move some ashes and some embers around, but not like a 100-mile-per-hour gust can.

We're already seeing the smoke, still seeing the smoke, really, here across our Google Earth map. Now, this is the satellite from NASA, from Chula Vista all the way down here. This is where our Rick Sanchez is in that Harris fire. Here's the McCoy fire, up toward the Witch fire, which has been really terrible. It may not stop until it literally hits the Pacific Ocean.

Then out up toward L.A., and this has been a smoky one today. This is the Lake Arrowhead storm, firestorm. And also, just to the east of there, there is a couple of them kind of all trying to get together. But that has really pushed a lot of very bad breathing air through Anaheim, through Riverside. And the smog and the smoke in the valley today is definitely choking.

And I'll tell you what. People are having a hard time breathing in. It is almost now becoming a health problem, more of a fire problem, for the people in L.A. proper -- Anderson.

COOPER: And, Chad, yesterday, you were telling me about those embers which -- which fly off the trees and can go for great distances before landing down on a roof.


COOPER: And that's how this fire is spreading.

MYERS: That's absolutely correct. Look at some of the wind gusts here now. These are on top of the canyons, from Lake Arrowhead, 18 miles an hour, Running Springs, 17 miles per hour. These -- these embers go up, and they may go up 100 feet, and then they jump another 100 feet in front of where the firefighters are. And that's the problem. It is hard to get a line. You can't get a line around this system, because, as soon as you get a line, then all of a sudden, the fire is behind and you think you're good. Now you have to evacuate, and the firefighters are doing just that all the time.

These lines are changing every minute, as the day goes on. And, obviously, so are the numbers of how many homes lost, now, well, up over 1,000. Yesterday, we were only at 400.

COOPER: And, so, the bottom line, in terms of when the winds may die down, is what, tomorrow evening, or when?


COOPER: ... time frame?


The winds still pick up from where they are now. They pick up tonight. They die down tomorrow at about 10:00, 11:00 in the morning. They pick back up tomorrow night, but not as much as tonight. So, we're stepping down the threshold. We were 100. Then we were 75. Today, we were 50, tomorrow 30. And, then, by the weekend, 10 and 20, and it is over. So, that will help.

But there's so much fuel out there and they are so -- the lines, the fire lines, are so long now, hundreds of miles worth of fire going and all of this tinder-dry stuff. There's a lot of fire. There's a lot of fuel and the firefighters have a lot of work to do.

COOPER: A lot of work, indeed. Man, they are working so hard, really literally around the clock. They're exhausted. Chad, we are going to check in with you throughout this hour as events warrant it.

You don't really understand a story like this unless you get out with the people who are living it. My next guest knows that all too well. He is a reporter. And, yesterday, he actually covered his own house burning down. It is an amazing story. We will talk to him ahead.

And, at the top of the hour, an amazing story that affects us all, a "Planet in Peril," CNN's special documentary beginning, at 9:00 p.m.

We will be right back.



JOHNNY VILLANAUEVA, EVACUEE: My wife woke me up at like at 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 really quick. It was really quick.


COOPER: One of thousands of evacuees here, estimate about 12,000 at Qualcomm Stadium, hundreds of thousands across Southern California this evening.

Joining me now on the phone is captain Julie Hutchinson of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as CAL FIRE.

Captain, thanks for being with us.

You have been fighting the Harris fire, where more than 70,000 acres have burned. What's the latest on that?

CAPTAIN JULIE HUTCHINSON, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION: Now it is 72,000 acres. We still have quite a few people evacuated from their homes, a couple fronts still burning. We have had a wind shift pushing the fire in a couple different directions. The fight isn't over on this one yet either.

COOPER: Do you have any sense of -- what was the biggest problem with the Harris fire? Are the winds still really high?

HUTCHINSON: Well, the winds have shifted today, which has given us a little bit of a break. The biggest challenges, besides the terrain in Southern California and the type of vegetation we have growing, coupled with those winds -- they're just hard to stop. When you get the multiple fires and you have a hard time getting resources, it makes it even more difficult.

So, it has definitely been a disastrous week in Southern California this week.

COOPER: Is your department able to keep up? I mean, how -- how thinly stretched are your resources?

HUTCHINSON: You know, statewide, we're all very thinly stretched.

The thing that people forget is that those normal calls that go on at fire stations every day don't stop. The medical aid and the traffic collisions and those, they continue. So, you can't leave every station open.

So, agencies in California have worked together for so long in this cooperative system, where we're there to help each other, that we offer as much aid as we can. But, when you have this many fires, it requires just so many firefighters, that there's just not enough.

COOPER: And how do you get a broad overview of where you need to go? How do you try to organize something like this? HUTCHINSON: Well, luckily, we have a pretty good incident command system that we utilize throughout the state. And all the agencies participate.

But the key is, sometimes, you have to be defensive and, sometimes, you're offensive. On this fire, due to the limited resources we had, we were fighting this very defensively. We were just moving it around houses, making sure people were out safely and lives were saved.

We were trying to protect the structures we could, and then we just moved on with the fire. We weren't really ever able to get offensive on it, to where we started putting in containment lines. And we're finally getting a little bit of that, but it's going to take more resources and, again, the cooperation of the weather.

COOPER: How big a problem have -- has it been, people not willing to evacuate, and having to use resources, firefighters, to -- to go house to house and try to get people to leave?

HUTCHINSON: Sure. That's been tough, because, on the first day of this fire, we had a civilian fatality, as well as another civilian was burned, and we had four of our firefighters burned trying to get people out of their homes and rescue them.

When you have that, and then you go to the next house, and people are refusing to leave, and you have to either decide to stay or leave them, that's very difficult for firefighters, when they have already seen burn injuries. We want to see people out safe and sound. And we can deal with structures later on. But we want the people to get out safely. And that's been our top priority, is preservation of life, of not only the civilians, but of our firefighters.

COOPER: What is your biggest concern right now?

HUTCHINSON: The biggest concern is that we don't have containment. And, until we get those containment lines around any of these fires that are going, we're all going to be very nervous.

We also have very, very tired troops here. Our firefighters have been on the ground since it started and have had no relief. So, that is -- they're tired and they're getting beat down. That's when we can start having injuries.

And we still have a community here to protect. So, together, with the evacuees and -- and the people affected, we're helping keeping each other motivated and staying in for the fight. We don't want anybody hurt and we want to get those containment lines in.

COOPER: Captain Hutchinson, we appreciate you taking time to talk to us. Good luck to you. Thank you very much.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

COOPER: At 9:00 p.m. Eastern, in just about half-an-hour from now, we have the results of our yearlong investigation, "Planet in Peril." It is a remarkable at the kinds of climate changes and global changes we're seeing right now on the ground in places all around the world, not just the situation here in San Diego.

If you're interested in what's happening here, you are going to want to see that, starting at 9:00 p.m.

Here in San Diego County right now, at least 1,200 home have been destroyed. Two people have been killed. Several firefighters have also been injured in this desperate battle. Some are being treated at the burn center at the University of California-San Diego Medical Center.

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, was the only television reporter allowed to go to the burn center today. He had a debriefing from them. He joins me now.

Sanjay, what have you learned?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're hearing a lot about the types of injuries that have been coming into the burn center, Anderson.

First of all, this is the only burn center really in this county. On Sunday, about 1:30, was when the first burn patient came in. Thirteen patients subsequently came in, five patients the next day, and one patient the day after that. So, the numbers certainly have come down.

But some of those patients are critically injured, as you might imagine, Anderson, nine of them actually in critical condition still right now. Seven are considered in fair condition, one in good condition.

I did talk to the chief of trauma burn out there, Anderson. And we hear that, for example, one of the patients burned so significant that, actually, 60 percent of the body was actually burned. So, you get a sense of that.

But a lot of what they're also seeing are the inhalation-type injuries, just all this particulate matter that you see in the air here sorts of floating in, causing problem with people's lung disease, especially people who have lung disease and heart disease. That's something they're dealing with as well -- Anderson.

COOPER: And, Sanjay, how are area hospitals dealing with all this?

GUPTA: Well, some of the hospitals, a few of the hospitals that we spoke with actually did sort of a prophylactic evacuation, if you will. They sort of anticipated that they might have to evacuate, so instead of doing it in an emergency sort of fashion, they started moving some of the patients out.

This particular burn center that we were just talking about, Anderson, is the only burn center sort of in the area. So, anybody that was badly burned was sort of sent to this particular area. Other hospitals are dealing with the other sorts of injuries, either the cardiopulmonary-type stuff, heart and lung stuff, or lacerations just from having to evacuate so quickly.

COOPER: And treating burns, I mean, that's a extraordinarily difficult thing.

GUPTA: It really is. And it's a long process as well.

There's 18 beds in this particular burn center. They're not completely filled up. What we have -- a lot of people thought they were, but they are pretty close. And it's going to take several days to take care of them.

Over the first 24 to 48 hours, it is all about giving them fluids back, Anderson. They just lost a lot of protective barrier of their skin. Got to make sure they don't get infections later on. They're going to require ICU stay at about three to five days.

So, maybe even a few days from now even, they start to think about removing some of that dead, charred skin and replacing that with skin grafts. It is an awful process, but that is exactly what some of the people are going to have to go through. Sometimes, they are kept in a chemical coma with so many medicines, so they don't -- they don't have the pain associated with this.

COOPER: All right. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks. We will have more from you throughout this evening and more of the fires all throughout this hour.

At the top of the next hour, as I said, the big picture. These fires are really a piece of it. Fire, drought, global warming, climate change, deforestation, it is all connected, tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, the product of a yearlong, worldwide investigation all around the globe. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, myself, Animal Planet's Jeff Corwin. "Planet in Peril" starts in just 30 minutes.

We will be right back.


COOPER: Just a reminder: at the top of the hour, the first two hours of our extraordinary documentary "Planet in Peril." CNN's Rick -- it's a remarkable look at climate change, deforestation, overpopulation, species loss, many of the kind of issues that we have been discussing even in this last half-hour.

CNN's Rick Sanchez joins us right now from Jamul, California.

Rick, what are you seeing?

SANCHEZ: This is unbelievable. We are in a bowl right now, Anderson. That's the best way to describe it.

As I look in front of me, what I see is the -- what's left of the fire that came through here earlier today and last night. As you look behind me, go ahead and go into that shot. Get the camera off of me. Go ahead and put it in that thing.

And you see there's a house right there. Beyond the house, you can see what is left of this fire. This is the southern edge of the Harris fire. And there is the problem, not the house in the foreground. The problem is the houses on the other side of that ridge. That's where Rancho San Diego is. And that's where there's a couple of thousand homes that the firefighters here and the forestry officials are monitoring right now, because they have called in some strike teams just to make sure they can try and keep the fire away from that.

We were over on the other side a little while ago. It is incredible, just how close the house is to that other side of that ridge. And this is the biggest fire, or certainly one of the biggest; 70,000 acres have been scorched by this fire already. It has done a lot of damage. And this is the part that they're now trying to contain.

Giving viewers a sense of where we are right now, just southeast of San Diego, and probably closer to Mexico than any of the other fires are, to give you an idea geographically of where we are right now. This is a very dangerous fire. People on the other side are very concerned, as are firefighters, about what could possibly happen.

They have been going door to door. They have been telling them that they really need to evacuate. Some of them are being very stubborn about it. And they're saying, no, you know, we're -- we're going to stick it out. And some are saying, frankly, it is just too difficult for them to leave, because they have animals. They don't want to risk it.

So, it is really a hairy situation here for firefighters and some tough decisions that are being made by these folks here right now.

There it is, the outer edge of the Harris fire that we have been following for you all day.


SANCHEZ: Anderson.

COOPER: Rick, now, as we see that...

SANCHEZ: Anderson.

COOPER: ... fire burning on the hill in back of you, are there -- are there firefighters working on that fire there on the hill, or is that just burning on its own?

SANCHEZ: No, there are.

The strike teams are actually on the other side. And, from time to time, when we first got here, we're watching as they were doing drops, airdrops, trying to see if they can keep the fire at bay. Earlier, they had come through and they had actually made a fire line in front of me, which is what kept -- you know, it is interesting, but I'm sitting in an area right here.

Go ahead and get a shot of this area. And I think you can see that, where I am right now, the fire hasn't been here. But if I look 10 feet in front of me, I'm seeing the smoldering. If I look directly behind me, about a football field away, that's the other side of the fire.

So, it is almost like I'm in an area where the fire, firefighters and wind somehow avoided -- the fire was able to go around it and then climb back up the mountain. But that's the real point of contention right now. That is what has got them concerned, is the fact that the fire could possibly go over that ridge. If it goes over the ridge -- and it is right at the top of it now -- that's the real problem because of the homes that are on the other side.

And, if the wind picks up, then they're obviously going to have to make some very serious decisions about how they go in there and fight it. Those decisions, I don't think have been made yet.

COOPER: All right.

Rick Sanchez, appreciate it. We will talk with you throughout this evening. It's going to be a very long evening of our coverage.

Tonight, 12,000 evacuees are right here at the Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. They have nowhere else to go, not much to do but keep their eyes on the stadium's TV sets, hoping for news about their neighborhoods.

One of the evacuees here is Renee Bushey. She and her two sons and three dogs had to leave their home yesterday. They spent one night in their SUV in a Wal-Mart parking lot. They're now here. She joins me now.

Renee, thanks for being with us.

And your name is what? Taylor (ph)?


COOPER: Taylor.

And who is this you have with you?


COOPER: Giles.

Is Giles kind of nervous?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. He's real scared.

COOPER: He's scared.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's never been around so many people.

COOPER: Oh, yes?

How about you? Was the fire scary? Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can't breathe good in it.

COOPER: You can't what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't breathe good in it.

COOPER: You can't breathe good in it? Yes.

What -- Renee, when did you leave your house?

RENEE BUSHEY, WILDFIRE EVACUEE: Sunday evening about -- between 8:00 and 9:00, I think.

COOPER: Did you see smoke? I mean, could you tell the fire was coming?

BUSHEY: Oh, yes. It was real windy and it was hard to breathe. And it was already -- we were standing in the living room. And I have a big living room window in front. And I saw like three big embers fly across the front yard. And we put a sprinkler on top of the house and got the heck out of there.

COOPER: Did you ever consider not leaving, or...

BUSHEY: Yes, I did. I did. But the kids were too upset. And they were really upset, actually. And there was no question after that.

After I went and talked to my neighbors, they were leaving, too. They were packing up to leave. So, I grabbed a box of pictures and loaded up the kids and took off.

COOPER: Yes. I always wonder, you know, what I would bring. What do you do? You take pictures?

BUSHEY: Well, I -- because of the other fire, I thought about what I would take, and I had them all in a big plastic box, baby books, the majority of my pictures, and I just grabbed that. You know, I didn't grab anything off the walls or anything. I just grabbed that. That had a lot of important things in there.

COOPER: So, have you guys been sleeping here now?

BUSHEY: Actually, we stayed in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Then we stayed at the Poway community center. Then we came here.

COOPER: What is it like here?

BUSHEY: It is great. You couldn't ask for any more, other than to go home. You know, the people are great. And they have covered every -- all of our needs, except being able to go home.

COOPER: What is it like for you, Taylor? What is it like being here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it is OK, but I would rather go home.


And you have heard your house is OK?

BUSHEY: Yes. We have heard. Our neighbor, a little ways down, his -- their house did burn. But -- and the fire came right up to my house, but it didn't get it. We're lucky.

COOPER: Lucky, indeed.

I'm glad things are working out for you.

BUSHEY: Thank you.

COOPER: Thank you so much. Really nice to meet you.

Taylor, nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nice to meet you, too.

COOPER: All right. Thanks for taking care of your dogs, too. Nice job.

If you would like to help the victims of these fires, you can through CNN's "Impact Your World" program. Just go to CNN/impact. Click on the California wildfires link.

Up next on this special edition of 360 from San Diego, we want to take you to one of the communities that's been hit hardest by the fires so far. Hundreds of people living there have lost everything.

And whether it's fire or flooding or drought, we're seeing more and more of it. At the top of the hour, we will travel to the ends of the Earth to try to figure out why -- "Planet in Peril," 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

We will be right back.


COOPER: At the top of the hour, you're going to see the first part of our CNN special investigation, "Planet in Peril." It's a look at the many threats to our environment.

Here in Southern California tonight, people are wondering if these fires are a result of global warming in some way, the climate change we have been seeing. The simple answer is, no one really knows for sure. Some climatologists believe global changes are making firestorms like these more likely.

We ask CNN's Tom Foreman to show us how.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, if you want to see the potential link between these fires and global warming, all you have to do is look at this map, which predicts increased vegetation growth over the next century.

The darker greens indicates places where plant growth is expected to double or even triple as a result of greater periods of rain, driven by climate change. And Southern California is clearly one of the hot spots.

Let's zoom in and look at what's growing there. Certain low- growing plants, low scrub oaks, chaparral grasses, plants that are all highly flammable, are being fueled by all of this rain. Now, you might think that water for these plants is a good thing, but not necessarily so when you talk about fire danger.

Some of the best research on all of this is being done at Oregon State University, which is where we talked to professor Ronald Neilson. He works with the U.S. Forest Service and says too much water in these desert areas can be terrible.

RONALD NEILSON, PROFESSOR, OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY: That's like pouring gasoline on a fire. Those dry zones tend to get a little bit of drought, and you have lots of vegetation built up in there. And it can all burn up.

FOREMAN: And how. Look at this map. Based on those additional levels of fuel, all those plants growing, this is where the greatest number and most intense wildfires are expected in the next century.

And, again, Southern California is ground zero. Couple that with increases in population growth, and you can see how all these factors come together, so that climatologists say, while we can't blame one fire on climate change, we can say that these factors are combining in that area to set up what could be a century of fires just like what we're seeing now -- Anderson.


COOPER: Well, coming up at the top of the hour, our two-hour investigation on climate change.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, wildlife biologist Jeff Corwin and I literally traveled around the world this past year for CNN's "Planet in Peril" documentary, 13 countries, four continents. It's a two-night event premiering at 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

And, all throughout those two hours, we are going to be bringing you updates, the latest from San Diego and all across California on the fires. And then, 11:00, right after "Planet in Peril" finishes, we are going to continue with special coverage of the fire.

Right now, the blaze that firefighters around San Diego call the Witch fire roaring out on the hills and across Rancho Bernardo. It has burned almost as many homes as all the other fires in California put together, 500 homes destroyed, 5,000 more threatened, hundreds of people who have lost everything but their lives, and some luckier ones.

CNN's chief national correspondent, John King, joins us live from Rancho Bernardo -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And, Anderson, we're standing amid the devastation of one of those homes, some families allowed back in today to see whether their house was destroyed, whether it was still standing.

But this neighborhood, Rancho Bernardo, as you noted, still under permanent evacuation for now, because of what fire officials are worried about. If you look at the wreckage here of this home, the metal, this is a piano frame. It is still hot to the touch. Down below, you can hear and smell the embers still burning.

So, families were allowed in briefly today, some lucky, some not.


KING (voice-over): In San Diego's Rancho Bernardo neighborhood, the urgent goal now is to keep the flames from coming back. The destruction is random, many houses unscathed, others, just steps away, in ruins.

The Da Silda family was evacuated at 4:00 a.m. Monday. Kyle (ph) Da Silda saw flames just down the street.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Open the garage door, it was like opening an oven. All this hot air and stuff just comes out at us.

KING: The wait to go back is nerve-racking.

NANCY DA SILDA, EVACUEE: We were told today that we could back and get any medicine or files we might have left behind if our houses are still standing.

So, we have been waiting in line, so that we can go back into the community. And, hopefully, our house is still there. Anxious and hopeful. I will be happy if it is still there, but I'm not expecting it. I know how fast and how hot the fire was when it was coming at us.

KING: Once cleared by police, the family piles into their pickup, their joy at finding their house still standing tempered by the devastation the neighbors face.

GERALD DA SILDA, EVACUEE: Things will never go back to the same. When we were leaving in the morning, I just saw that hill back just there go on fire, like oil on water. And I'm one of the ones that got lucky. We will just do whatever we can to help.

KING: Ten-year-old Tessa worries about her friend across the street and her pets. TESSA DA SILDA, EVACUEE: And it's just I hope all of them are going to be OK. I'm kind of worried about my friend. My friend Anna (ph), she has her pets. She had to leave some of them behind, like their snake and their bird. They might be coming back in a little bit.

KING: The Da Sildas have smoke damage to deal with, but, if suppression efforts here go well, should be allowed back permanently soon, a blessing given the sight as they hurriedly drove away, Tessa remembering the moment as she records her family's good luck and the neighbors' misfortune.

T. DA SILDA: But, like, at 5:00 in the morning, when we had to come down here, it looks like, up there on that hill, the fires, they were just coming down on us. There was a red glow in the sky. And then we came back and then there were 40-foot flames just streaming down that mountain.

I think that this is the scariest moment of my life. It was. But I think we're going to be OK.


KING: A remarkable young girl there, Tessa.

And, Anderson, this is why the families are not allowed back. Fire crews were here most of the day, wetting down the devastation of the houses that were destroyed. But you can see and feel the smoke still coming up in this, the heat getting hotter as we're here. The metal is cracking, still very hot to the touch.

They're also worried about this. They're worried, again, the winds could shift, those devastating winds. There is a small fire just over the hill this way, to my right. They're worried, if the winds change, it could come back through this neighborhood as well.

And, if you look further up to the north, you can see very thick smoke of a major fire they're still dealing with in the north. And, as we stand here in this neighborhood, surveying the destruction, you see helicopters coming in behind us, filling up on their missions, heading off to the hills to the north, where the fire still rages -- Anderson.

COOPER: John, how many home in that area where you are do you see that are destroyed?

KING: It is hard to count. And we're still counting in the hours we have been here.

But, where I'm standing, one, two, three, four this way, and then a house with a little smoke damage on the side, but unscathed. You look this way, two more homes destroyed, then three or four homes that escaped virtually untouched, perhaps some smoke damage.

And you just see, going through the yards, we're seeing a hot tub behind this house simply melted down to the ground, lawn furniture destroyed. The hill, up into the hill, is scarred. All of the vegetation around here is scarred.

And, again, in the hours we have been here, as the evening comes on -- and the fire crews have been gone now for a few hours -- more and more smoke is rising up, as, once again, there's still quite a bit of heat, low fires burning under the ground. They believe they have done as well as they can in this neighborhood for now.

And they have shifted, the fire department, to neighborhoods where there are still more active fires burning, but, Anderson, quite a bit of devastation here, and the families told they don't know when they will be able to come back, because they are worried the fires could come back or blow in again -- Anderson.

COOPER: Well, is there anything left to burn in that area, if the fires do come back?

KING: There are plenty more homes up behind me. I can count eight, nine, 10 homes just in this small subdivision up on the hill behind me, vulnerable, because the trees up there were untouched.

So, if, again, the winds shift and you have embers coming in, and they get into the trees, that hill escaped virtually unscathed directly across from me, more up the hill this way. The devastation is much more down here. But we are in the worst end of the subdivision.

As you drive in, many of the homes up there untouched. But, again, were the fire to come back, it is a rolling hill, and the winds get blowing, as you have seen, throughout Southern California the past few days. There are many more homes here, which is why this neighborhood is off limits. And many families, Anderson, for hours have been lined up at a police roadblock trying to get in just to get a quick glimpse, police telling them only if they need medication, only if they need vital documents. They get an escort in. Then they're quickly asked to leave, because the police still worry this neighborhood not yet safe -- Anderson.

COOPER: So much devastation.

John, appreciate that. We will check in with you throughout this evening.

John said a moment ago the flames that tour Rancho Bernardo are being driven by the dry Santa Ana winds blowing east to west, accelerating as they go through the canyons, stoking the disaster that we're watching unfold.

Last night, CNN's Chad Myers predicted a rough day. It has been that and more, but it could have been even worse, and it might be getting better. It might be.

Chad has the details. Let's check back in with him now -- Chad.

MYERS: I believe it's getting better, Anderson.

Right now, the biggest gust I can find, about 25 miles per hour. And how does that change the forecast? How does that change the attack? Well, when you have 20-mile-per-hour winds, the storm, the firestorm still goes. But it doesn't jump fire lines, like we had these big embers jumping yesterday, with 50- and 75-mile-per-hour winds, the embers coming off the top of the ridges and flying for a mile, half-a-mile, two miles.

Well, if you set up your fire line right there and your firefighters are here, all of a sudden, the fires are behind you. And then you have to scramble out of the way because you have a new fire line to worry about.

And this is what we had yesterday and all day during the day on Sunday. The winds were gusting to 100 miles per hour on Sunday at Point Mugu. Here's what we have today, lot of ground fire. Not up so much in the crowns of the trees, but the ground fire burning along the ground. Not quite as dangerous for houses here.

But when a ground fire gets up and gets caught up into one of these eucalyptus or one of these chaparrals, we get the ground fires jumping from limb to limb, from tree to tree. And then we're back to the same problem we had before.

That's why you need to get rid of the big trees around your house, get rid of the ground shrubbery around your house, so that you have a 40- or 60-foot perimeter around your house of nothing that will burn. Therefore, your house has a much better chance of surviving with the wind we had yesterday. At least it is gone for now. And I don't think it is coming back -- Anderson.

COOPER: What are conditions likely to be like tomorrow and throughout this evening?

MYERS: Well, they get better this evening after this initial, this breath of air that comes out of the mountains.

And how this happens here, think of this high pressure almost as a breathing high pressure. When the sun comes out, the air gets hot and the air rises, like a hot-air balloon. See, the air is going up now. And the air is -- it's lighter. But, then at night, it gets cooler and the air goes back down. And it is like breathing out. And then it breathes out again. So, every night, the winds get actually stronger.

Now, in the east, we think of this as completely ridiculous, because the winds always get stronger in the daytime, and they die off at night. But that's not the case during a Santa Ana event. In fact, the winds get stronger during the nighttime hours. So, we're going to have one more event tonight, winds gusting to about 35.

Tomorrow, a littler event. Tomorrow night, probably only 20, maybe 15 miles per hour. And then it is done. And at 15, firefighters can get in there and helicopters can get in there.

What I want to you notice about this picture, do you see this plume of smoke? It looks like a volcano went up. That is great news. You know why that's great news? Because when wind is high, winds are at 50, 60 miles per hour, you don't get a plume like this. The smoke blows flat and it blows fast.

When you get a puff of air like this to go up, that means the wind is not knocking this smoke down. It is not smoking -- it is not pushing the smoke toward the ocean. The winds are lighter and the air is allowed to go up.

When I saw this on the Wolf Blitzer show, I said to myself, here it is. This is the beginning of the end, when we can get smoke to go up and not straight across and blowing at 50 or 60 miles per hour -- Anderson.

COOPER: We are going to check in with you, Chad, throughout this evening. There's a long night ahead for us.

Tonight, 12,000 evacuees are here at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. It is going to be an even longer night for them. They have nowhere else to go, not much to do but keep their eyes on the stadium's TV sets, hoping for news about their neighborhoods.

Thelma Gutierrez talked to many of them.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If would you like to help volunteer, we still have thousands and thousands of people to feed.


THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As volunteers offered a helping hand, nervous families huddled together for warmth and comfort. Some stared at images of a burning San Diego, eager to learn about their homes, but afraid to find out.


GUTIERREZ: Marion (ph) and Al Stoddard (ph) can't forget the terrifying words they woke up to.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A pounding, just real, real loud pounding on the door: You have got to get out. You have got to get out.

GUTIERREZ (on camera): Normally, this is the corridor in section 59 that would lead right down into the stands. But last night, it was converted into a makeshift sleeping area for some 10,000 people.

Everywhere you look, you see young families like this. You see blankets and mattresses and cots lining the walls. Right here, we see a mother with her young baby.

Hi, Lonni (ph). How did it go last night?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It went good. She didn't sleep very well.

GUTIERREZ: I can imagine how difficult it is to be here with a baby. What was the toughest thing about having to spend the night here? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just making sure that she was warm and comfortable.

GUTIERREZ (voice-over): Ventriloquists and magicians gave their time to make the kids laugh and help to make the time go by faster.

JOE GANDELMAN, VENTRILOQUIST: I know how scary this is and how painful it is. Soon, things are going to get better. This, too, shall pass.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: At first, you know, I was kind of, like, upset. It is hard. It is hard to stay like that when everybody around you is so positive.

GUTIERREZ (on camera): Just outside of the stadium, you see this cordoned-off area. You see piles of donated items, like paper plates, bottled waters, and toilet papers.

And then, if we cross over, you see a snack table that has been set up for the evacuees with all kinds of items, like raisins and apple sauce and potato chips.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's no point of sitting home and just watching the TV. I figured, if you're doing something active, it probably is going to relieve a lot more tension. And it is a good way for our kids to see how the communities interact with each.

GUTIERREZ (voice-over): Everyone here is looking forward to a new day, hoping they will still have a home to return to.

Thelma Gutierrez, CNN, San Diego.


COOPER: Certainly a lot of lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. You could not get a more different -- different -- different situation than you have right here than we saw at the Convention Center in New Orleans.

We're just a few minutes away from the premiere of "Planet in Peril," our yearlong documentary investigation, worldwide investigation, on climate change, some of the many issues we have been talking about over this last hour.

But, before we go to "Planet in Peril," we're joined by Rich Phelps from the U.S. Forest Service. He joins us now on the phone.

Rich, what is your greatest point of concern right now?

RICH PHELPS, U.S. FOREST SERVICE: Well, we have had structure protection all day in the Val Verde, Hasley Canyon, Chiquita Canyon areas. And we're pretty confident there. The fire is moving westward above the town of Fillmore. But we're not seeing an imminent threat in that area.

COOPER: And how -- throughout this evening, do you expect the winds to continue being pretty strong?

PHELPS: I haven't seen an updated forecast. But what I have been hearing on various news broadcasts today is that the wind is going to back off a little today. And we should have pretty good progress tonight. We're still at 10 percent containment.

COOPER: In terms of -- in terms of resources, do you have the manpower that you need?

PHELPS: Well, the resources across the area are stretched pretty thin. But we have had the resources that we need to fight the issues that we have had on this fire.

COOPER: What -- how many fires right now are burning?

PHELPS: In our fire or just in the area?

COOPER: In your fire.

PHELPS: In our fire, we have one fire perimeter that we're managing. There are two other fire perimeters immediately adjacent to us, the Magic fire and Buckweed. We are the Ranch fire.

COOPER: And how many folks do you have on the Ranch fire now fighting it?

PHELPS: We're close to 800 folks.

COOPER: And what kind of shifts are they working? I mean, are they getting any rest?

PHELPS: They're -- they're working 12-hour shifts, most of them. And, so, they're -- we're also running a night shift. So, they're getting about 16 hours on and about eight hours off.

COOPER: In terms of what you have seen before in your experience, how did this compare?

PHELPS: This has been a very aggressive fire. The winds really pushed it pretty hard.

With the fuel moistures and the low humidity that we have had, it has been really hard to extinguish. And, so, the firefighters are working really hard to put out any embers here on structures and mop up the fire line. They're doing a great job.

COOPER: We appreciate -- appreciate what you're doing and what all your workers are doing. Thanks for joining us.

We're also joined now on the phone by Rick Sanchez, CNN's Rick Sanchez.

Rick, where are you? What are you seeing, Rick?

SANCHEZ: All right. This is what we had told you we were concerned about. Firefighters here are worried that this thing could actually hit the ridge. Well, it has happened. I mean, you look at that thing right now. See it at the very top?

You see the flames, Anderson. You see the fire and the billows of smoke going up. The fire that we were watching from this backside -- and, again, this is the Harris fire, the southern edge -- has just hit the top of the ridge. You could actually see it as you see the flames coming up. And that's a big concern, because, obviously, now, if that thing crosses over -- it's at the very top now -- if it crosses over, it's going to affect the homes in that area. And there's a couple thousand of them.

We're going to be here watching it for you -- Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: We're going to be breaking in with bulletins on the fire over the next tow hours. As we do, we will be showing you literally the global view, the big picture. Fire, drought, deforestation, it is all connected.

"Planet in Peril" documents it all, the product of a year's work, Sanjay Gupta, Jeff Corwin, producers, photographers, editors and I, shot in high definition around the world.

"Planet in Peril" starts now.