Return to Transcripts main page


California Fire Emergency; Reporter Covers Own Home Burning; Danger From Choking Smoke

Aired October 23, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. The southern California fires caught in the grip of a fire disaster that's spreading by the minute. Hundreds of thousands of people are now at the mercy of raging flames, gusting winds and choking smoke. And there's no end in sight.
We are going to have live reports from across the fire zone.

Californians are escaping the blaze and packing into a football stadium crammed with tents and cots and lots of anxiety. We're going to take you inside this temporary shelter in San Diego and we'll find out how evacuees, thousands of them, are coping with this crisis.

Plus, a very different event in California also happening right now. The first lady of the state, Maria Shriver, is hosting the women who want to be the first lady of the United States. I'll talk to Maria Shriver about presidential spouses, presidential politics, as well as the fires in California.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's an inferno that defies imagination. This hour, the breaking news from southern California.

Fire consuming now 350,000 acres, an area twice the size of New York City. Check it out.

All these areas in the -- in California ablaze right now. And there's no sign that the flames or the winds, the heat or the danger will let up any time soon.

Only moments ago, the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, called it -- and I'm quoting now -- "a perfect storm for disaster." More than 13 major fires are raging right now. San Diego taking some of the most devastating hits.

Take a look at the map, take a look at some of these pictures. State officials now say the number of evacuees could go up to 500,000 people, half a million people by the end of this day. Emergency officials say more than 1,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed in San Diego County alone.

The governor says he's heartbroken by the wildfire devastation. He spoke to reporters just a short while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: We have to just pray that the wind goes away, because as soon as we get rid of the wind, then the firefighters can really put an end to the fires all over the place.


BLITZER: Thousands of evacuees in the San Diego area are taking shelter over at the Qualcomm NFL football stadium. Relief organizations are providing tents, but some people are bringing their own. Others are opting to sleep on cots in the open air.

There is a heavy police presence, as well as National Guard troops helping to try to keep order. So far, no problems are reported.

And since their stadium is doing emergency duty, the San Diego Chargers are now practicing out in Arizona at the Phoenix Cardinals facility.

Let's go live now to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Sean Callebs is out there.

All right, Sean. This brings back a lot of memories, obviously, of Katrina. You were in New Orleans, you spent a lot of time there. Set the stage for our viewers. What's happening at Qualcomm Stadium right now?

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think, Wolf, you really hit the nail on the head. A lot of people are making the instant comparisons to what people went through in the aftermath of Katrina, if you think about the Houston Astrodome. And then you look here, night and day. I don't want to diminish what those people went through and what people here are going through, but it's a much different situation.

Let's bring this family in, the McGees (ph), to talk about what's been going on.

And tell me how it's been. When did you evacuate? How difficult has it been for you, your wife and two children?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sunday night -- we live on the slopes between Ramona and Poway district on the -- I guess on the Mt. Woodson side. And we left Sunday night about 9:45, 10:00 after some neighbor -- a neighbor came down and was beating on the door. We hadn't necessarily heard about that we had to evacuate at that point. We only had a radio at the house.

CALLEBS: But you did because of the smoke, because it was just choking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we had to leave. There was no way. We couldn't breathe.

There's soot covering the inside of our van. I mean, we got down here. We didn't realize how bad it was until we got in the van earlier today. And...

CALLEBS: And Trevor's (ph) nose was running.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's right. And it was covered in soot on the inside. And that was just for a matter of hours of sitting outside of our house from when the fire started.

CALLEBS: Now, you are going to probably be sleeping in the concourse tonight. I've had a chance to walk through there on a number of occasions.

Robin, I'm going to ask you, what's it going to be like? Because you stayed at a friend's house, at a condo the past couple of nights. But you decided enough is enough on that family and you're going to tough it out here.

What's it going to be like?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm hoping to find kids that the kids can play with, you know, instead of being at my friend's house and alone. They are going crazy, stir crazy.

CALLEBS: When you think back to the images after the hurricane two years ago, and you endure what people are going through here, how much better is it here? How can you tell people that it's really night and day?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is. I was -- I haven't been too upset at all because I was just amazed at how San Diegans reacted to this.

We heard about the last one. I'm not -- I'm kind of new here, so I don't know what it was called -- the Cedar fires. As far as this one goes, they have been so supportive.

CALLEBS: Right. Best of luck to you guys. I hope you find out soon about your house, because I know it has been an agonizing 72 hours for this family.

Wolf, you are hearing that time and time again, the big thing, people come to us, they want to ask, "How is our neighborhood? Have you heard anything?" And the real scary part, the afternoon is creeping up here, and that is when the Santa Anas kick up again, and that is really what people are waiting anxiously for.

If there is one thing that the center says it needs, it is ice. Everything else, the volunteers are doing a great job. But ice is on the low side out here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to stay on top of this story over at Qualcomm and elsewhere. Half a million -- half a million evacuees already in this area. That's more in this country than at any time since hurricanes Rita and Katrina. A huge, huge impact on a half a million people already in southern California.

Let's head to -- head out to one of the areas of major destruction. That would be in Rancho Bernardo. One firefighter there says emergency workers feel like every home that's lost is their own. Some 1,200 homes have been lost already.

Dan Simon is out in Rancho Bernardo.

What's going on now, Dan?


Actually, firefighters right now are still dousing some of the hotspots. We actually have seen a few of the flare-ups since some of the destruction over here when we panned.

And wow, Wolf. Everywhere you look in this neighborhood you are seeing homes that have been destroyed.

We have with us firefighter Arthur Jackson.

You have been with the San Diego Fire Department for 21 years. You have been off for a couple of days. This is the first time you have been to this neighborhood. What's your impression?

ARTHUR JACKSON, SAN DIEGO FIRE DEPT.: Well, there's a lot of devastation. You will see houses that are perfectly fine and then right next to them, they're totally destroyed. So it's just amazing how this fire just selects whatever it wants and burns whatever it wants.

SIMON: So what's the process now? We have seen utility crews come in and shut off all the gas lines. You guys are dousing some of the hotspots. What's the priority?

JACKSON: Well, the priority now is to protect the houses that haven't burned. There's a few hotspots that may not look like much, but they might be right next to a house that hasn't burned. So that's what we are hitting right now to make sure that more houses don't burn in the area.

SIMON: How are you guys holding up? I know you work 24-hour shifts. Obviously, every man has got to be on duty for something like this. How's everybody holding up?

JACKSON: Oh, everybody is holding up pretty good. It's just kind of hard to see everybody's house burned up. That's what's really kind of wearing on the firefighters. But we're out here -- some of the firefighters, their own on homes have burned up also.

SIMON: And they're working, of course, right?

JACKSON: Yes, they are.

SIMON: And again, you know, we have talked about this over and over again, but it really makes an impression on you. You pretty much choose any street in Rancho Bernardo and you may see seven or eight homes that have -- you know, they're totally leveled, and then there might be two or three that look OK. JACKSON: Right. And I don't know if that's because the people have defensible space around their houses, where they had ice plants that helped to protect their homes or some of the houses had wood or embers that are right next to their homes. I'm not really sure about what's happening there. But if they did do some measures to protect their house, some of it, it really paid off.

SIMON: OK. Thanks so much.

That's Author Jackson, 21-year veteran of the San Diego Fire Department.

Wolf, let me talk to you about something else if I could. At this point, residents are not allowed to come back to the area, so there is a very good chance that if they lost their homes they don't know it. So the city is actually putting up a Web site.

Well, there you have the Web site, But there's a section on it that's going to be up and running later this afternoon and it's actually going to list addresses of various homes, and it will let people know if in fact they've lost their house. So they can go to, and hopefully they won't see their address on it, but that's something that they can do.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Dan -- all right, stand by. We're going to be getting back to you as soon as this story continues.

Let's check in, in the meantime, with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File".

This is a huge human disaster in southern California. And the area is so extensive. All the way -- people familiar -- from Santa Barbara, basically, all the way down to the Mexican border these fires are raging. And thousands of people, obviously, right in the line of this fire.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, yes. And the kind of terrain the developers have chosen to build on out there is perhaps not the best for residential developments.

It has been a very dry year in southern California. These are brush-covered hills where the winds whip about. And somebody wrote me an e-mail and said, "You can't build Connecticut in southern California." And they may have to revisit the idea of developing a lot of this open land because of the kinds of things that we are seeing here.

Two years, Wolf, after hurricane Katrina, and the nation's emergency response systems once again being called on and being tested. This time with these wildfires in southern California.

More than 500,000 people have been ordered to evacuate. And like Katrina evacuees in New Orleans, thousands of them in San Diego have fled to the NFL stadium to wait out the danger. The scene at Qualcomm Stadium with thousands of people there, along with bands, buffets serving gourmet food and massage therapists, is a far cry from the New Orleans Superdome.

There's also a heavy police force, along with National Guard troops on hand just in case. Following a tour of Qualcomm, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pronounced, "The people are happy. They have everything here."

Schwarzenegger says officials learned a lot since the last fires of 2003. This time around, more equipment, more manpower available, faster coordination. In fact, under an agreement that California signed right after Hurricane Katrina, the state requested 150 fire trucks and crews from other states to assist.

President Bush has declared a federal state of emergency for seven California counties and dispatched top federal disaster officials to the scene. The White House says the government is using what it learned from Katrina to do a better job this time, saying that "Integration, additional communication and cooperation among state, local and federal governments has improved."

So here is the question. In the wake of the California wildfires, what lessons has the U.S. learned from Hurricane Katrina?

E-mail your thoughts to or go to

Wolf, I get the sense there's a little better effort being made this time around.

BLITZER: Take a look at this shot. I'm going to put it up on the screen. This helicopter, it's about to drop water over these fires. You see a lot of this going on, our viewers familiar with the (INAUDIBLE) area in California. They come over, they drop the water, and then they move on, but it's happening over and over and over again -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Earlier, I saw some absolutely astounding pictures watching in my office on the monitor. They look like passenger jets flying in and dropping this pink-colored fire-retardant chemicals. But it occurred to me, the ability of these pilots -- they are skimming at treetop level in mountainous terrain, moving at probably 300 miles an hour. And it's something that looks like you'd fly from here to Vegas in. Throwing these chemicals down and then pulling up and out of the -- out of the area.

And I'm just thinking that the pilots have to have nerves of steel to be able to perform. And of course, they are flying through smoke and all kinds of cross-currents. The Santa Ana winds are blowing sometimes.

It's amazing stuff they are doing.

BLITZER: Take a look at this picture, Jack. The horses are being evacuated as well. Santa Clarita, in California. Obviously, you have to deal with not only horses, but the pets and some of the animals at the zoos. They are being removed as well.

CAFFERTY: Well, you remember -- recall -- it brings to mind Katrina and all of the stranded animals that were rescued in the days following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

It's a comfort to me -- I'm an animal lover -- to see somebody looking out for the critters and getting them out of harm's way. They can't fend for themselves. And it's nice to see caring people looking after them.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to stay on top of this story, Jack.

Thanks very much.

One reporter, by the way, covering the California wildfires becomes part of the story. He watches his own home burn down on live TV. It's a very personal story. It's all caught on videotape.

Plus, they are safe from flames but not necessarily from danger. Bad air is causing lung problems for people outside the fire zone.

And California's first lady, Maria Shriver, she's keeping a close watch on the blaze. But she's also carrying on with some political business, a gathering of the presidential candidates' wives.

All that coming up. A lot more right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



We are monitoring the fire reports coming in from news crews all across southern California. You can see the live pictures right behind me.

The pictures indeed are incredible, but one man's reporting is really standing out right now. You have got to see this.

KFMB reporter Larry Himmel actually covered the story of his own house burning down. What you are about to see happened yesterday afternoon in Rancho Bernardo. That's in San Diego County.

Watch this.


LARRY HIMMEL, REPORTS ON HIS BURNING HOME: On any given day, I would say welcome to my home, but this is what is left of my home just outside the Forest Ranch area. A fire crew that fought valiantly to save every house on this hill, at least took a shot at it and were nice enough to let us up here.

That was our garage. The living room over there. There was a porch. Back there, the bedrooms. No pets left behind. Family out. Cars out. Safe. But you can see my hose right here valiantly trying to do something, but this is it.

It's a southwestern-style house. I had been in it about 25 years out here when there was nothing.

We cleared brush, we did what we could. This was a living hell coming over the hill, and this is what I come home to today.


BLITZER: Our heart goes out to Larry. There's nothing left, by the way, of Larry Himmel's home except for smoldering rubble, as you just saw.

We are also getting this report in from Camp Pendleton, down in southern California. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton officials have announced there are two fires now aboard on the base. One fire is located at one area near the Marine Corps air station. A second is located near what's -- a road on the base.

"We continue to watch these fires closely and advise residents to maintain awareness of the current fire condition and exercise caution." That according to commanding officer Colonel James Seton III (ph) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

Shocking, shocking stories.

These flames continuing. Apparently no end in sight. At least for now.

Across southern California, you can't escape the choking smoke that's billowing from those out-of-control wildfires. The health threat is very, very real and goes far beyond the fire lines.

You are looking at these live pictures right now coming in from Mt. Miguel in California. You see the smoke. It's pervasive in this whole huge area, and it's causing some serious problems.

Brian Todd is watching this part of the story for us.

Any letup, first of all, in sight, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in about two hours, we are told that many high wind warnings in southern California will be dropped. That's good news. But residents still have to be careful because wind advisories will be in effect, and that means gusts of up to 50 miles an hour, and that can still mean breathing other health hazards.

Now, where is all this wind going? I spoke to our Chad Myers a short time ago. He told me that in both the L.A. and San Diego areas, winds are blowing from the east-northeast in a westerly direction out into the Pacific Ocean. That's illustrated by this map that you see at your right-hand side there. That's mixed news. And the smoke plumes from these fires can drift for hundreds of miles. So it's good that a lot of that's heading out over the water.

But from some places where the fires are concentrated, like Rancho Bernardo, that means smoke plumes still travel over land for maybe 20 to 30 miles before moving out to sea. So a lot of people in that path could be at risk for inhalation problems.

One evacuee from Scripps Ranch, California, described what it's like for her trying to get some good air.


SUE GREENBERG, EVACUEE: Well, the air quality has been off and on. You know, really smoky and sort of painful to breathe and that sort of thing. And there are medical personnel circulating through the crowd strongly advising that you wear these things because there are things in the air you can't see. And I appear to be the only one who took them seriously. But they suggested this and a lot of water.


TODD: You are seeing again live pictures from some of the smoldering -- down there in southern California. That looks like it's in Mt. Miguel, California.

The problem with what that lady was talking about with the medical mask that she was wearing, experts say those masks don't often work because the particles in the air in situations like this are often smaller than what those masks can filter out. And if you have certain conditions, you are more at risk during these fires.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that these conditions can be aggravated by smoke particles -- congestive heart failure, obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and asthma. Staying indoors is advised, but, of course, we know a lot of people are on the move right now.

Take care wherever you can. Wolf, it is dangerous going out there.

BLITZER: Brian, is there any indication when the air quality in this whole area is going to improve?

TODD: Well, I just spoke with an official at the EPA. They're of course monitoring the air quality out there. They say it's now at code red, which is considered unhealthy. And one official told me it may not actually improve significantly until around Thursday.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thanks very much.

I want to show our viewers a still photo we have of the Los Angeles area. Take a look at this.

You can see the smog around the city, and a lot of that is a result of the smoke that's really devastating this whole southern California area. Remember, this is a huge area going all the way from up north in Santa Barbara, down to the Mexican border, below San Diego. And you can see the impact it's having on L.A. itself.

If you would like to help, by the way, some of the victims of this wildfire that's ravaging southern California, you can through our Impact Your World initiative. Just go to and you can take action right now.

The first lady of California, Maria Shriver, she joins us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. She's been concentrating on the fires out there. She's also holding an unprecedented meeting with the spouses of the presidential candidates. You are going to find out who is missing, by the way.

Also, President Bush's number one point person in the disaster in California, he is standing by, just been briefing members of Congress. He will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll talk to him about what the federal government is doing.

All that, a lot more.




BLITZER: Someone else whose house was in Rancho Bernardo is Brian Arnold. He has four children, including a 2-month-old. But they don't have a home anymore.

Brian Arnold is joining us right now.

Can you -- first of all, our hearts go out to you and your family, Mr. Arnold. But what's it like?

BRIAN ARNOLD, LOST HOME IN FIRE: Well, you know, it's pretty tough. We left about 2:00 in the morning, we evacuated, and found out the next day what had happened. And you know, it's tough. But we have -- we have a lot of friends and family that care about us, and the family is safe. And we have insurance and we will just rebuild.

BLITZER: Were you near the house as it got caught up in the flames?

ARNOLD: No. We left about 2:00. I think it happened about 6:00. And so we were staying down at my mom's house, which is about 10 minutes away.

BLITZER: But everybody in the family is OK, is that right?

ARNOLD: Everybody is great. Yes. The kids are all good. We are staying with the mother-in-law and the father-in-law up in San Clemente, about an hour away.

BLITZER: Did you manage to get some mementos out of the house, some important stuff that you wanted to save?

ARNOLD: You know, we -- my wife and I both really didn't think it was going to be coming our way like it did. And so we grabbed a couple of things. Didn't grab nearly what we should have.

We didn't grab the family albums, which is upsetting. The worst thing we left was we had a big thick book -- binder of genealogy that went back to about 1400.

BLITZER: Because we are showing a picture of and you your beautiful family, two boys and a little girl and your wife. Everybody seems to be OK?

ARNOLD: Yes, yes. We are all doing good.

In fact, my wife and I were talking a few months ago. We wanted to build a bigger closet. But this isn't the way I had it planned.

BLITZER: So what are they saying to you now? What do you do? Obviously if you want to rebuild a home, that's going to take a while. What is the game plan?

ARNOLD: Well, we have got -- there is a development over next to the school that our kids go to. We live on 12 acres, which is kind of an agricultural area. And so it's about 15-minute drive right now to get the kids to school every day.

And so there is a new development that went in over next to the school. So we are looking at renting a house there.

If anybody out there has any ideas for us, contact me. But trying to get a house rented and get with the insurance company and...

BLITZER: I assume the fire insurance for the home, your homeowners policy, is going to cover if not all, at least most of the damage?

ARNOLD: Yes. Actually, my -- I'm with State Farm. And my rep called me about six months ago and we went over it and updated it. And so I think I'm covered. So thank goodness for that.

BLITZER: This is clearly not just a structure. This is your home. How many years had you been living there?

ARNOLD: We bought the home in (INAUDIBLE). So it was built in '68 and we updated it about five years ago. We doubled the size of it and added a master bedroom and things like that.

But, yes, there's a lot of memories lost. We will just make new ones.

BLITZER: Well, our heart goes out to you and your beautiful family. Good luck, Brian Arnold.

Good luck to a lot of people out there who are suffering just as you are. It's a really horrible, horrible story. Thanks very much for spending a few moments with us.

ARNOLD: Yes, no problem.

And I wanted to add one thing that we did that really helped us was, our church recommends we keep a year's supply of food and water. And we have that. And, in fact, the garage wasn't burned. We have a garage away from the house. And so that stuff -- that stuff is there. And I would encourage anybody out there to -- you know, it's easier to get prepared when it is not an emergency. And so now we -- when we need the stuff, it's there for us.


ARNOLD: And, so, we still have about a year's supply of food and stuff that we can work off of.

BLITZER: So, you have a positive attitude. As bad as it is, obviously, it could have been a whole lot worse.


BLITZER: And thank God everybody is OK in your family.

Brian Arnold, thanks very much.



BLITZER: And dramatic video images are pouring in to CNN by the minute from California residents affected by the fires.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is monitoring these I-Reports coming in.

Abbi, what are you seeing?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, imagine stepping out of your front door and this is the image that you are confronted with, flames rushing over the hill here. This is Doug Iberg's (ph) home in Saugus, California. This is north of Los Angeles.

He says this was even more shocking for residents there because they were not under a mandated evacuation order. He said people were panicking as they were trying to get their things together and get out of this neighborhood.

He himself evacuated. He said his home was fine. But four others down the block have been destroyed. It is not just the people in imminent danger of these fires that are affected. Look at the pictures of the ash that people are suffering from in Southern California.

This is Oceanside, California, Brad and Joan Kelly's car. They just looked out of the front door for us and looked at the scene. They described it as raining ash. Even though they are miles from any fire, they say it smells like burning wood out there. There are so many people affected by the fires in Southern California, it is hard to keep up with the images coming in to

But that's the place to send your images, your video, keeping safe, of course. We have also added another feature there, because hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated. There are people looking for each other. Send us your e-mail. Let us know that you are safe. We are adding all that information to the Web site -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi, thanks very much.

I want to go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She is monitoring what's happening at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in Southern California.

We are told -- we reported, Barbara, two fires on the base right now.

What are you picking up?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that's right. The Marines are confirming very upsetting news. Two fires have broken out on Camp Pendleton, which is a 125,000-acre base, mainly very dry brush, a matter of very grave concern to the Marines.

Firefighting units from the base are on the scene of both fires. The Marines say they are working towards containing both fires. No military housing areas are at risk, but they have moved some Marine units out of the way of the fire lines already. Of course, 60,000 Marines and their family members at Camp Pendleton under orders to be prepared to evacuate if it becomes necessary.

They were told last night, pack your personal belongings, pack food and water, and be ready to go, a good deal of concern about the base. And, of course, there are more than 500 Marines that are being trained, ready to turn around and go on to the fire lines to help down a little bit further south in San Diego.

So, in this situation, Wolf, the military both victim and good samaritan -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks, Barbara, very much.

I want to go to the White House. Our correspondent Ed Henry is standing by, getting some new information right now on what President Bush is planning to do about all of this.

Ed, what are you picking up?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino just confirming to CNN that, in fact, the president will be heading to California on Thursday, this sparked in part by a phone call the president had with Governor Schwarzenegger yesterday afternoon. You will remember the governor encouraging the president to come and get a firsthand look. And, of course, this administration burned so much by Hurricane Katrina, the slow response, they obviously want to show that they have learned lessons, that they want to get a firsthand look, that they want to get as much federal help to the scene as quickly as possible. The president pledging to the governor on the telephone yesterday the government would go just that, everything from the Agricultural Department providing firefighters to the Housing Department setting up something at that is basically helping people find emergency housing.

And White House spokeswoman Dana Perino acknowledging that all of this in part sparked by Hurricane Katrina.


DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We did provide assets at Katrina. But there were lessons learned out of Katrina. And I think that we are applying some of those, especially when it comes to early communication, early and often communication between our staff here at the federal level and then the governor's staff and the mayor's staff.


HENRY: Now, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer is jumping on the fact that the California National Guard may not be fully up to speed with all of its equipment because some of its equipment is in Iraq. Dana Perino acknowledging this is a time of war, that's a reality, but she is insisting that the president will make good on his promise to get all the federal assets to California as quickly as possible -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of pressure on the White House, on the Bush administration right now to make sure it is done right.

Ed, thanks very much -- Ed Henry at the White House.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is sending a loud- and-clear message of its own about its response to the California fire emergency. FEMA officials are saying, essentially, this isn't the same team that messed up to the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Listen to this.


HARVEY JOHNSON, DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: What you are really seeing here is -- is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership, none of which were present in Katrina.


BLITZER: Let's go right to our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena, for more on FEMA and the federal government -- Kelli. KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the FEMA administrator, David Paulison, are due to land in San Diego about an hour from now. They are there to get a firsthand look at a very dire situation.


ARENA (voice-over): It blew the flood, but the government says it is much better prepared for the fires.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: A couple of the lessons from Katrina which we have put into effect here are, first of all, planning and preparation in advance for these kinds of challenges.

ARENA: Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff says the administration moved quickly to declare an emergency, opening up federal coffers.

State and local officials evacuated people early and efficiently. The military has committed equipment and personnel for firefighting duty. C-130s stand ready to drop fire retardant from the sky. And FEMA has moved cots, blankets, and supplies into San Diego.

DAVID PAULISON, DIRECTOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: I talked to the mayor last night personally. They were set with food and water. They have about 10,000 people in there. But we also have about 150 National Guard there to provide security. He said that the place was running extremely well.

ARENA: FEMA Director David Paulison is an ex-fire chief, and disaster relief experts are giving the government high marks for a quick response.

But it is still early. The winds are a key factor. And fires could collide and merge. The real federal test will come after the fires are out.

Mark Ghilarducci is a former California emergency official.

MARK GHILARDUCCI, FORMER CALIFORNIA EMERGENCY OFFICIAL: When we start seeing about rebuilding, taking care of the issues of the disaster victims, the fire victims, supporting the state and local governments in their recovery process, those are going to be really, really key federal support areas.

ARENA: As folks in New Orleans still struggling more than two years after Hurricane Katrina know all too well.


ARENA: Now, experts point out that California has a long history of dealing with natural disasters, particularly fires, and state officials do get much of the credit for the response so far -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kelli, thanks very much. The inferno ravaging Southern California is a huge challenge on many levels for state officials, local officials, as well as for the federal government itself.

Joining us now is the interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne. He is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You have a unique responsibility, the Department of the Interior, in dealing with this crisis out there.

Explain to our viewers what you are doing.

DIRK KEMPTHORNE, U.S. SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR: Wolf, a lot of what we do is coordinate the federal response through the National Interagency Fire Center, located in Boise, Idaho.

For example, we have 95 fire engines that are now in California. We have another 80 that are on the way from the Rocky Mountain area and other regions of the country.

BLITZER: How long is it going to take to get them there?

KEMPTHORNE: They should -- many of them will arrive today. We have 10 air tankers. We have 18 helicopters. More are on the way. But we are having minimal effect with the air attack because of these high winds.

BLITZER: The air tankers have the water that they are dropping on these fires. But it is hard to get close, because the winds are still as strong as they are.

KEMPTHORNE: That's correct.

And it is not only water, though. They also use retardant. With the winds blowing, that retardant gets spread out so thin, it has no effect. So, right now, to a large extent, it is the ground crews that are attacking this fire.

BLITZER: So, when is the wind going to die down that will enable you guys to start seeing some progress out there?

KEMPTHORNE: Well, we hope later today. Late this afternoon, this evening, we hope that those winds will begin to die down. Tomorrow should be a good day that we finally can begin to really attack this from the air.

BLITZER: So, you guys are dealing with the actual fire, trying to stop the fire, and you are using federal assets to help. FEMA is dealing with the evacuees. Is that how you divide the federal responsibility?

KEMPTHORNE: That's correct. Michael Chertoff, as you pointed out, is on his way to California with the director of FEMA.

We had a conference call last night with the Situation Room at the White House over this whole situation. We will have another one tonight. So, yes, it is very much a coordinated effort, as well as Chuck Conner, the acting secretary of agriculture, because of the Forest Service.


BLITZER: So, all of you are involved.

Now, here's the bottom-line question, because a lot of us remember the disaster that followed Katrina.


BLITZER: The federal government didn't exactly do a great job then.

How are you making sure that the federal government is doing everything that the California governor wants you to do, obviously, local and state officials want you to do, so there is no repeat performance of what happened during Katrina?


It is a new situation. It is different people that are working this. Last night, I had a personal conversation with Governor Schwarzenegger. Many of the federal officials have. The military is also included in this, NorthCom, as well as General Blum with the National Guard bureau, everybody working, everybody communicating.

Last night, it was very important, where we have these Americans that are evacuees now, that there was a FEMA presence that was in place, that federal officials are in place.

We have nearly 2,000 individuals that are firefighting, a community, that are now in there from the federal government. California has some of the best firefighters anywhere in the world.

BLITZER: And they are experienced.

KEMPTHORNE: But we're augmenting -- they are outstanding. But now they have a team that is in place.

BLITZER: Governor -- the former governor of Idaho, so, you are a former governor. You understand what Governor Schwarzenegger is going through right now, although this is an enormous crisis.


KEMPTHORNE: It's enormous. But I have gone through many of these as a governor.

But I will tell you, Governor Schwarzenegger is on the front line, and he's doing a good job.

BLITZER: Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, thanks for coming in.

KEMPTHORNE: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good luck to you...

KEMPTHORNE: Thank you.

BLITZER: ... and all the men and women who are helping you.

The wildfires forced California's first couple to change plans. But the first lady of California, Maria Shriver, is hosting a forum that includes some of the women who want to be the country's next first lady.

Maria Shriver in THE SITUATION ROOM next to talk about the forum. She's also talking about the fires.

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


BLITZER: California Governor Schwarzenegger is right in the fire disaster zone today. He is desperately seeking help. He's calling up 1,500 National Guard troops and recruiting manpower and cargo planes from the U.S. military. He also was forced to cancel his own planned appearance at a women's conference in Long Beach, California hosted by his wife, Maria Shriver.

I spoke with Maria Shriver about that conference and the unprecedented gathering of would-be first ladies.


BLITZER: Let's talk about a little bit about this conference that you and the governor are sponsoring today on women's issues.

One of the panels involves these -- the prospective first ladies, if you will, that -- that are coming to this panel, the -- the wives of the various candidates. I say the wives because the -- the spouses of the front-runners, Bill Clinton, is not going to be there and Judith Giuliani is not going to...

MARIA SHRIVER, FIRST LADY OF CALIFORNIA: He really wanted to be here. The president, President Clinton, really tried to work his schedule, and he very much wanted to be here. But, unfortunately, at the last minute, he couldn't. And Mrs. Giuliani declined to attend.


BLITZER: We are told by -- by the Giuliani campaign that she had some scheduling problems. It would have been good of both of them would have been there.

But you clearly have an impressive lineup there. What are you hoping to achieve as a result of bringing these prospective first ladies together right now?

SHRIVER: Well, first of all, it has never been done in history. Never before have we gathered the spouses of people running for president together on one stage. That, in and of itself, to me, is shocking, actually, because spouses of people who run for president serve, too.

They put themselves, their privacy, their lives on the line in just the same way. So, I'm hoping that these women will be honored, first and foremost, for their contribution. They have extraordinary lives in themselves.

I hope that people here, the 14,000 women gathered here, will understand really what it is like when someone in your family gets up and decides to run for president of the United States. I think that they will get a view into the candidate by understanding the women who share their lives with them.

I think that that is really a window into who that man or that woman is, when you understand who they are married to. Some pollsters have told me that they think the spouse is irrelevant. Others have told me that particularly women make up their minds all the time about someone's family and how they make those choices in their lives.

So, I think that these women that you are seeing every day out there on the campaign trail have a tremendous and will have a tremendous impact in this race.

BLITZER: We have seen first ladies in Washington have largely ceremonial roles, and others have some really activist roles, getting involved in substantive issues.

You have had your own experience over these years in California. What advice do you have for a prospective first spouse, if you will?

SHRIVER: Well, I think all of these women, they don't need my advice. I think they are acting in an incredible way. They're being true to themselves. They're talking about issues that they believe in.

I think the days of the ceremonial first lady are over. These are independent women. Several of them have had professional lives long before they found themselves in this situation. And they don't need advisers to say, don't say this and don't say that. And they are not shy about saying that they have influence and that they are involved in the strategy of the campaign. And I think that's good.

I think -- I think we should get rid of the days where we say, oh, my gosh, does the spouse have something to -- do they influence their husband? I hope so. I hope so. I hope that that's the kind of marriage that political leaders have, where they listen to their wife or to their husband.

As you remember, several years ago, when Bill Clinton first ran, said, you know, you are getting two for one. I think many people look at -- even though they are not electing a couple, they understand that there are two people that will be living in the White House, and they want someone there who is smart and who has influence and exercises it in a way that it's classy and it's substantive. BLITZER: And, clearly, in California, they got two for the price of one, as we now know.


SHRIVER: Oh, thank you.

BLITZER: I will leave you with this quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt that Senator Clinton often cites: "Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they get in hot water," which is a...


BLITZER: ... I think an accurate assessment that Eleanor Roosevelt had. You want to comment on that?

SHRIVER: Well, I think, obviously, I know Eleanor Roosevelt is a big hero of Hillary Clinton, and she's a hero of mine as well.

And I think, if you study many of the women that have inhabited that role in the White House, there are some extraordinary women who haven't gotten very much attention, but have been -- have had tremendous influence over the years.

And I think that America has seen -- you know, I think America often is a little ambivalent about the women's movement. Should a wife be -- kind of stand back? Should she be forceful. And they often play out their contradictory feelings in a first lady.

But I think that they would be well served by any of these women, were they to become the first lady of the United States.

BLITZER: Maria Shriver is the...


BLITZER: All right. Maria Shriver.

In the next hour, we are going to be hearing more from Maria Shriver. She is going to tell us how her husband is coping, the governor of California, with his worst crisis since he became governor of California.

Take a look at this new video that's just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. This is in Del Dios, California. You can see, they are trying to prevent these flames from getting closer to this fire. These are private homeowners. Apparently, they are using their basic garden hose to try to stop these flames from getting closer and closer to their home.

This is video that's just coming in right now. And, you know, as much as you see this, your heart goes out to these families, because it is not only happening here in Del Dios, California. It is happening all over Southern California. These kinds of scenes are happening. Magnify them, multiply them by the thousands, people trying to do whatever they can to save their homes. And you see this guy over here just using his own hose to try to stop these flames from getting closer and closer to his house.

We will update you on what happened to his house as we get more information.

Here in Washington, everything seems to be political, even natural disasters. President Bush's critics never let him forget that Washington had a very slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

Coming up in our "Strategy Session," we will assess what's different, if anything, this time.

We will be right back.


BLITZER: Look at these pictures just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM right now. These are live pictures. The smoke in this area, in Orange County, California, it is simply, simply devastating, the California fire disaster obviously bringing back lots of memories of the federal government's handling, or many would say mishandling, of the situation involving Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Let's get some analysis of what's going on. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican former Congressman J.C. Watts, they are here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Listen to the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, speaking out today. Listen to this.


CHERTOFF: I met with the president this morning about it. He has instructed everybody in the federal government to move as rapidly and as fully as possible to support the state.


BLITZER: Does that instill confidence in you, when you hear Michael Chertoff saying that?


Look, during Hurricane Katrina, people thought FEMA was an acronym for federal employees missing in action. It took them days before they had assets on the ground to help people evacuate their homes, to notify people.

Look, just a month ago, they -- the mayor in San Diego instituted an emergency mass notification system that allowed them to call up the 400,000 residents by phone, by e-mail, by text messages. That perhaps saved a lot of lives yesterday.

BLITZER: Now, what do you think, J.C.? As a former congressman, you understand the political fallout that could result if the federal government mismanages this crisis.

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. We have seen that.

And, over the last 10, 12 years, Wolf, Donna, we have had some pretty interesting disasters in America, starting with April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City, through the wildfires in California today. And I have seen FEMA up close and personal.

James Lee Witt, in the Clinton administration, did a great job coordinating things, working -- coordinating things, working with state, local governments, federal resources, did a great job. We saw in Katrina where there wasn't a lot of coordination. And I think there's a lot of blame to go around for state, local, federal governments.

But, here, I think we learned from Katrina. And I think here we see all the resources springing into action, trying to get the situation under control.

BLITZER: The president is going to go out there on Thursday. He's not -- he wants to make sure that the entire country knows he takes this incredibly seriously, because this is a real human tragedy, half-a-million people forced to flee for their lives.

BRAZILE: Well, more importantly, then, and it -- it is great that the president is going. But there -- FEMA is also sending 25,000 cots, 20,000 blankets.

Look, my heart goes out to the people of Southern California. People are going to be living in stadiums. HUD has now alerted the Red Cross that they want to begin to help those who have evacuated and lost their home find some temporary housing. So, the federal government clearly has learned its mistakes from Hurricane Katrina.

BLITZER: And, you know, when all of the dust settles, it's going to cost the federal government, us, taxpayers, a lot of money, presumably, to help out these people, as we should.

WATTS: That's right.

I think, in circumstances like this, when you have natural disasters, when you have hurricanes, when you have what happened in Oklahoma City in April of 1995, when you have Hurricane -- Hurricane Katrina, I think taxpayers are willing to step up to the plate and -- and do what's necessary in order to bring relief or get these situations under control.

It is always interesting, however. I think a lot of politicians often use these situations to do things that's outside of the boundaries of taking care of the natural disasters. But -- but I think taxpayers are willing to step up to the plate in times like these to -- to make sure that we are doing the right thing.

BLITZER: We always do.

All right, guys, thanks very much, J.C. Watts and Donna Brazile. It is a heart-wrenching scene for fire victims, going back to their ruined neighborhoods. Coming up, we are going to get a firsthand account from a San Diego man as he returns home for the first time, the emotional tour of what used to be his home. That's coming up.

Also, they are both the rescuers and the victims, the U.S. military helping in the California fires, even as some of their own are now forced to evacuate.

Much more coverage coming up -- right after this.


BLITZER: Got an apology today from a Democratic congressman from California for some remarks he made last week.

Let's go to Capitol Hill. Our congressional correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is standing by -- Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, today, Congressman Stark finally did apologize for those inflammatory comments he made last week after he got the squeeze in two directions, both from Republicans, who have been blasting him for his tirade, and also from Democratic leadership that's been pressuring him to apologize.

When he came to work this morning, Representative Stark found that Republicans were trying to get the House of Representatives to censure him for his comments. You will recall that, last week, he -- he said that -- he said that he thinks President Bush is sending people to Iraq just to get their heads blown up. It was in the middle of a debate about the children's health care insurance bill.

Stark finally did apologize, he says, because he didn't want to distract from the real issues before Congress.

Here is what he said.


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...


YELLIN: Now, that was -- it said Friday, but that was actually this morning.

Now, Stark, we are told, was -- got a phone call from the Democratic majority leader this weekend, who said he really should say he's sorry. A number, again, of other Democratic leaders made it clear that this was the time for him to truly come out and make this issue go away. And he told Republicans on the floor today that that's what he planned to do. And they said they expected a real apology. And there you heard it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Jessica Yellin.

I want to go to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File."

Jack, look at these pictures behind me on your screen right now, people camping out. They are fleeing for their -- their -- their -- they're really fleeing for their lives. This is in Mount Miguel, California.

But, as we zoom in closer from these aerial shots, you can see what is going on. This -- this is people searching for some of their belongings. They're just throwing them away. We don't know what they are doing over here. But it is an emotional emotion -- an emotional moment for a lot of these people. I guess they are simply trying to get some supplies as well.

CAFFERTY: It's hard, I think, to imagine the scope of this, based on the pictures we see, because we see what the camera can capture in a given location.

But, when you talk about a half-a-million people being ordered to evacuate, that is a massive movement of humanity, and 1,000 homes destroyed, and more potentially could be. I don't think we know how big this is, watching it on TV from the -- from the East Coast.

The question is this: In the wake of these California wildfires, what lessons has the United States learned from Hurricane Katrina?

Nari writes: "From leaving black residents high and dry in New Orleans, we have learned how to get help to the rich white people in Malibu and San Diego as quickly as possible."

Bruce writes from Rancho Bernardo, one of the communities hit there in San Diego: "Certainly better coordination and readiness, a commitment from local and state agencies. The Cedar fire in 2003 taught us similar issues related particularly to firestorms, and the results show in this perfect firestorm. And, of course, the attitude of San Diegans means a lot as well."

Lori in Pennsylvania: "We obviously learned a lot since Katrina. For instance, now we have learned to offer massage therapists to relieve stress and a clown to entertain the children. Wow, no dead bodies slumped in wheelchairs, dehydrated babies, or filthy conditions inside the stadium. Could it have something to do with who was affected in this tragedy vs. Katrina?"

I don't know, Lori, but you have got to remember, that Superdome was stranded and isolated, and you couldn't get to it during Katrina. Qualcomm Stadium is readily accessible.

Matthew in Wisconsin writes: "I think people have learned that, no matter if you're dumb enough to build a million-dollar home with cedar shingles in a fire-prone ecosystem or a home under sea level in a hurricane-prone ecosystem, the federal government will bail you out." Bill writes again from San Diego: "We're being taken of here in Southern California because we're white, rich, and Republican."

And Bonnie in Lincoln Park, New Jersey: "I remember seeing a victim of Hurricane Charley in Florida interviewed right before Katrina hit. A reporter asked for advice for the potential Katrina victims. And I think what he said still stands. 'Don't depend on the federal government to help you, and I hope you don't get my insurance agent'" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.