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THE SITUATION ROOM

Walking Through the Ashes: California Community Hit Hard by Fire; Fire Battle Fatigue; Katrina 'Wake-Up' Call

Aired October 24, 2007 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, easing winds and rising hopes out of the flames and ashes out of southern California. But right now the size of this disaster and the threat to homes and lives remains staggering.
Our correspondents are live across the fire zones.

It's the largest evacuation in California's history, approaches one million people. This hour, the very personal trauma, struggling to cope with losing everything.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger adopts a familiar role, man of action. We're watching the governor's response to this crisis and whether other elected officials may want to follow his lead.

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

Hundreds of thousands of Californians are in pain right now, and their blazing or charred communities look the part. More than 900,000 people have been forced to evacuate, not knowing if their homes have survived or are in ruins. Some people say they're so desperate for news, they're calling their phone machines back home. If they get an answer, they figure all is not lost.

Right now there are 16 active fires across southern California. Six fires have been contained. Firefighters are making new headway now that the winds are easing.

Some 25,000 buildings are threatened by the flames right now, nearly 1,500 homes already have been destroyed, and 679 square miles are blackened. That's an area the size of New York City.

Our correspondents are standing by right now in the hot spots, the fire lines, the evacuation centers, to keep you up to the minute on California burning. So many fires, so much anguish.

Parents trying desperately to try to figure out how to explain what's going on for their children, children who may come out of this experience with some emotional scars. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REGGIE VALASQUEZ, EVACUEE: My son ended up -- and he was asking me yesterday when we he was evacuating, when he was in tears, asking me, "Dad, is this a dream?" I go, "No, son, I need you to be strong." So he ended up really working hard, him and another older brother. They loaded everything up and they got here and they thought, we need to do something, so then they ended up helping where they could, unloading trucks and those kinds of things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go live to one of the communities where the smoke and the suffering is very, very great. CNN's Ted Rowlands is in Running Springs, California.

Where exactly is Running Springs? Near what major city, Ted?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the Lake Arrowhead area, Wolf, which is east of Los Angeles. This is an area that has the Big Bear ski resort. It's a mountainous region, and this was the second hardest hit in the state, aside from San Diego County. Talking about 500-plus homes completely leveled, and about 10,000 people still out of their homes, evacuees.

We just got some bad news we want to pass along from the incident command center. They have suspended the aerial attack. Today was the day to really attack this from the air. It is so smoggy and smoky that the visibility in this mountainous region is not affording them to fly the aircraft as they want to.

That is a setback, because the winds have died so considerably, it would have given the opportunity for firefighters to attack this blaze through the air. And right now they have had to suspend the air assault.

Take a look at the devastation in the path of this fire. This is one region of the Running Springs area, one neighborhood. And you can see it is completely, aside from that large building in the back, completely devastated.

We see this typically in fires. For some reason, the fire saved that building, but the rest of it completely demolished.

They're going to keep attacking this one, a lot of people hoping and praying they won't come back to this sad reality. A lot of them will come back to this. And again, the headline, unfortunately, at this hour, air attack suspended because of the smoke -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They can't deal with that if they can't drop those water -- the repellant.

What about the air? How difficult is it to breathe where you are right now, Ted?

ROWLANDS: It is somewhat difficult here. We do have a little breeze up in the mountains, but driving up, unbelievable. Because the winds have stopped, this smoke has just blanketed a huge portion of southern California.

People are very worried about that, people being told to stay indoors with your air-conditioning on, stay out of the smoke. The downside, you lose the winds and the smoke has now blanketed a huge portion of southern California, and a real concern from health officials.

BLITZER: Ted Rowlands on the scene for us.

All right. Stand by, Ted. We're going to get back to you.

The California wildfires are putting a double strain on some members of the U.S. military who are helping with emergency efforts. And marines from Camp Pendleton in southern California themselves now are becoming evacuees.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching all of this unfold.

Hundreds of evacuees at Del Mar. You're at Del Mar, not far away from Camp Pendleton, but said the scene for us, Brian. What have you seen today?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I've seen a lot, Wolf.

It started in the predawn hours. We arrived at Camp Pendleton. We were driving all around that sprawling marine base.

We got there in the predawn hours. We're going to show you some images of that, where we were driving up Interstate 5, a massive interstate that runs north-south throughout California, and it was completely abandoned.

Smoke everywhere. It was really surreal on the highway. We could walk across it, walk up to the flames.

We -- at that point, we spoke to one of the fire lieutenants, fire crew lieutenants who was just coming off the front lines of the Camp Pendleton fire. This is called the Ammo (ph) Fire. It's burned nearly 10,000 acres.

We spoke to this gentleman who had literally just come off the lines. Here's what he had to say about how tough it was.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CURT JACK, FIREFIGHTER: It's been probably one of the toughest times I've ever had for all our people. Fire conditions are extreme, as you've been seeing, not only with this fire, but with all the other fires. The same thing with this one.

Could not ge ahead of it. And when we did, it would jump our lines. It would burn over us. It was incredible. Stuff I've never seen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: So that fire, we're told, is at least 50 percent contained, but they're still battling it up there at Camp Pendleton. That's about 20 miles away from here. And a lot of evacuees from there have come to this place.

This is the Del Mar Fairgrounds in Del Mar, California. About 2,000 evacuees are here.

You can see these bundles of food and the clothing behind me. They're still taking in people, they're going to be taking in more people in the days to come.

Wolf, this place was supposed to only be a shelter for animals, but as of about late Sunday night, early Monday morning, they said people just started showing up. They couldn't turn them away. They're ready to take more on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. We're going to get back to you as well.

Thank you.

It boggles the mind when you realize just how fast these wildfires in southern California have spread.

Look at this map tracking the Witch Fire, as it's called. That's the largest blaze in San Diego County.

Beginning at 2:00 p.m. local time on Monday, just four hours later, the fire was moving and raging out of control. By noon the next day, new hot spots had erupted. And a few hours after that, it was a full-fledged inferno. As early as this morning, the blaze was even bigger, more than 200,000 acres, after merging with a smaller fire in that area.

President Bush is preparing to visit the California fire zone tomorrow and to see the devastation for himself. Lessons from Hurricane Katrina very much on his mind.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's watching this story for us.

All right, the president spoke out today at a meeting. What's the latest?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, White House officials point out these are two very different kinds of disasters, but there's no denying that there have been lessons learned from the debacle of Katrina.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Message this time: I get it.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want the people in southern California to know that Americans all across this land care deeply about them, we're concerned about their safety, we're concerned about their property.

HENRY: The White house Seems downright obsessed with proving President Bush is on the ball.

DIRK KEMPTHORNE, INTERIOR SECRETARY: This man, our commander in chief, is on top of these issues.

HENRY: Unlike Hurricane Katrina.

BUSH: And Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.

HENRY: The White House made sure we saw images of the president in command, conducting a videoconference on the crisis, followed by a cabinet meeting dominated by the wildfires.

BUSH: I know we're getting the manpower and the assets on the ground.

HENRY: A series of calls with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger led to Mr. Bush quickly declaring a federal emergency Tuesday. Then a major disaster Wednesday, freeing millions in federal funds for the governor.

BUSH: My question to him was, "Are you getting what you need?" His answer was, yes.

HENRY: Another lesson learned, the president will view the wreckage Thursday, unlike the Katrina fly-over that backfired for looking out of touch. And contrary to the frosty relationship the White House had with Democratic leaders in Louisiana, the administration has California's Republican governor on speed dial.

KEMPTHORNE: I've spoken to the governor. I actually gave him my personal cell phone number, and saying, if you need additional resources, you let us know.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: I spoke earlier to the president's friend, Joe Albaugh, the former FEMA director, and he also pointed out another big difference, which is the fact that he says California has one of the best state-run emergency management systems. They've done so many drills because they've dealt with so many natural disasters, from earthquakes to wildfires. And Albaugh pointed out that they have done so much training, and that's paying off right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry, thanks very much.

And this just coming in. Arson now suspected in at least one of those fires in southern California.

Our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena, has been getting some details.

What are you learning, Kelli?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, law enforcement sources say that there is an arson investigation under way involving at least one of the California wildfires. Now, a house was searched in Orange County today as part of that investigation. Orange county is halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, Wolf.

Now, for the record, the FBI would only say that it's assisting the Orange County sheriff and fire officials in an ongoing investigation into the source of some of the fires, stopping short of calling it arson. But of course, as you know, some of our sources say that's exactly what they're looking into -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Kelli. Thanks. If you get more information, you'll share it with us.

ARENA: Will do.

BLITZER: And check out this view from 200 miles above the fire. These pictures came down a little bit ago from the International Space Station as it flew over southern California and the Baja Peninsula.

It's at the top of your screen. The clouds sweeping out over the blue ocean are smoke plumes from the fires.

NASA is also flying a special unmanned aircraft over the disaster zone. It carries equipment that can see through heavy smoke and darkness to locate hot spots that immediately relay the information to fire crews.

All that fire and smoke could cause some long-term damage to the environment by sending global warming gases into the atmosphere. That's the fear that's out there.

The California Air Resources Board says the wildfires will spew out two million metric tons of carbon dioxide and about 200,000 tons of methane and nitrous oxide. We're told that's equal to what 440,000 cars would pump into the atmosphere each year. That's a lot, but it's just a tiny fraction of the 470 million tons of gas California already contributes to the climate change crisis annually.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File".

Jack, the weather is improving a little bit, but this tragedy continues out there.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: They need some rain. It doesn't look like they're going to get it, but they could sure use it.

Another subject, 2.4 trillion, with a "T," dollars, that's how much the Congressional Budget Office is saying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost over the next 10 years. That amounts to about $8,000 for every man, woman and child in this country.

This figure includes about $700 billion in interest, since these wars are all being fought on borrowed money to begin with. And more than 70 percent of this money would go to the war in Iraq.

Remember the run-up to the war? Remember President Bush saying it would cost about $50 billion? The costs would be paid for with Iraqi oil? How's that working out so far?

As of September 30th, the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost $604 billion. That's more than either Korea or Vietnam, and there's no end in sight to this thing.

Hey, it's not like we couldn't use the money at home or anything, right?

Let's see what happens when Congress addressing President Bush's latest request for tens of billions of additional dollars to wage war.

Here's the question: The Congressional Budget Office says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost $2.4 trillion through the next decade. How could that money be better spent?

E-mails your thoughts to caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's "T" -- with a "T" -- trillion.

CAFFERTY: With a "T". It's a number I can't even begin to comprehend.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Jack. Thanks very much.

The clash of the New York Titans heating up right now. There's new evidence there could be a Clinton-Giuliani presidential showdown in the fall of 2008. Can their rivals do anything to stop that from happening?

Also coming up, look at this, a picture worth 1,000 words. Check out Vice President Dick Cheney. Is he asleep on the job?

And we're following all the breaking news as California continues to burn. We'll look at the billion-dollar blow to the U.S. economy and how power lines are in peril right now, making matters even worse.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Federal emergency management officials say they're applying the lessons learned in Hurricane Katrina, and it's helping things go much more smoothly in the wake of these California fires.

Joining us now from San Diego is the FEMA administrator, David Paulison.

Thanks, Mr. Paulison, very much for coming in.

First of all, are things coming together right now the way they should, or are there problems emerging?

DAVID PAULISON, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: I haven't seen any problems yet. I think it's working very well. I mean, you have little bumps in the road here and there, but the spirit of the people here is great. The coordination between the local government and the state, the federal government, the fact that we now have interior and agricultural USDA people, firefighters up on the mountain with the local firefighters, those men and women putting their lives on the line to protect the rest of these homes, it's just remarkable how this has worked.

BLITZER: Is it too early to guess how much this is going to cost the federal government to come in with assistance to help, especially those individuals who have lost their homes and didn't have home insurance?

PAULISON: Yes, we don't have those figures yet, Wolf. I think, you know, we'll get those as we go along.

The president did sign the major disaster declaration this morning. That allowed us to open up the individual assistance piece (ph) so that we can get those people who either don't have insurance or are underinsured rental assistance, things like that. So, you know, at the end of the day we'll figure it out. But right now we're not worried about that part of it.

BLITZER: So can I just assume -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- that if there are people out there who didn't have home insurance, didn't have fire insurance, and lost everything, the federal government will help them out and they'll be able to rebuild their homes?

PAULISON: That's correct. We can -- what we want people to do is we have our 1-800-621-FEMA number, or they can go to the FEMA.gov Web site and register themselves.

We'll send an inspector out. If they did not have insurance or they're underinsured, we can give them up to $28,200 to help them get back on their feet.

BLITZER: Right away. But that's a short-term assistance, financial assistance package, but in the long term, they'll get more? Is that a fair assumption?

PAULISON: The long term is it's going to be a long-term housing issue. And that's where we'll work with them, we'll work with the Red Cross, work with HUD, to make sure that people are not without a place to stay.

There's going to be a handful of people that are here that have lost their homes that cannot go back. So we'll need to put them in hotels or motels or into apartments or into some permanent housing to help them get back on their feet. I've got to tell you, though...

BLITZER: Go ahead.

PAULISON: I'll just try to tell you, the spirit here is just remarkable. The volunteers that have showed up, the attitude of the people who really don't know whether their homes are destroyed or not -- I was here yesterday, I was here last night, back again today. I'm just -- it just makes you feel good to see that type of spirit, people helping people.

It's what America should be about.

BLITZER: Mr. Paulison, what's the most important lesson you personally learned from Katrina that you're applying now to these fires in southern California?

PAULISON: Well, Wolf, I guess if I had to pick one, it was the coordination/cooperation that we've developed over the last two years since Katrina of how we're going to work together as a emergency management group, not an agency, but as a group. From the locals to the state, to the federal government, even inside the federal government itself, not working as stovepipes, but working together as partners. And that's how we responded here.

We worked with the state early on. We brought the Red Cross in. In fact, Mark Everson, the president of the Red Cross, was here with us all day yesterday, hand in hand to make sure right off the bat we had cots and blankets and food and water, all those necessities to get them through the night.

And now we're working to make sure that we get all the other necessities to take care of, along with the volunteers that are here. That's how it's supposed to work.

BLITZER: David Paulison, the director of FEMA.

Good luck, Mr. Paulison. Good luck to all the men and women out there as well, especially those families.

PAULISON: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Once the fires are finally out, the financial toll of the California wildfires will likely be felt for years to come. Just ahead, the first testaments of the staggering cost of rebuilding.

Also coming up, a tense encounter between the secretary of state and an antiwar protester. We'll tell you what happened.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, President Bush tells Cuban families and dissidents that the end in near for Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba. He predicts that once the Cuban leader dies, the world will discover horrors that, in the president's words, "will shock the conscience of humanity and shame the Castro regime's defenders."

We'll have a full report coming up.

And nearly a million people fled from the California wildfires. In a little bit, we're going to hear from a father of four whose home burned to the ground.

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

We're also getting our first look at the price tag for the damage from the California fires, and not surprisingly it's staggering. Nearly 1,500 have already burned to the ground. And the big question now, will the fire victims collect? Who's going to help them?

CNN's personal financial editor, Gerri Willis, is in Spring Valley, California. She's looking at all of this damage that's coming in from the fire.

And what are you seeing, Gerri?

GERRI WILLIS, CNN PERSONAL FINANCE EDITOR: Well, you know, we're at a high school here that's serving as an evacuation point for about 150 people who live in this area. They're drinking, they're eating, they're even sleeping here. There are cots here.

These people are just starting to get their arms around the damage to their homes, Wolf. You mentioned about 1,500 homes have been damaged here, but we've yet to get the final tally.

You know, we're very interested, of course, in numbers today. The range of numbers on the amount of damage here in Southern California, they range all the way from $500 million on one hand from the industry, to $2 billion coming from the insurance commissioner -- big range there.

If the insurance commissioner is right, Wolf, that means it will be one of the most expensive storms we have seen in some time. If you will remember, back in 1991, the most expensive weather system in Oakland, $2.5 billion worth of damage. So, I have got to tell you, this really ranks.

BLITZER: Could this turn out to be an insurance nightmare, as was the case in the aftermath of Katrina?

WILLIS: Well, you know, fire is an insurance risk that's actually covered under a regular homeowner's policy. But there is lots of debate right now about whether insurers are going to actually step up to the plate.

Dianne Feinstein had some interesting comments that she made this after -- this morning, actually, about this very topic. Let's listen in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Companies must not be allowed to cherry-pick the United States and only insure areas that are safe and secure and say to other areas, you're on your own.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIS: Of course, you know, we have already seen at least one insurer, Allstate, decide that it wouldn't write any new policies in this area back in July.

The big question, what people are watching now, will insurers step up to the plate, or are we going to see more retrenchments in coverage? -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Gerri, thanks very much -- Gerri Willis on the scene for us.

And you're certainly going to be seeing the impact of the California fires at the grocery stores. The fires destroyed more than 20,000 acres of avocado trees north of San Diego. That's about a third of the state's entire crop. And another 15,000 acres of avocado trees are still threatened right now.

A quick note. If you want to help victims of the California fire, CNN can make it easy through our Impact Your World initiative. Just go to CNN.com/impact to see how you can help.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is front and center, as California grapples with these devastating fires.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, has been watching Governor Schwarzenegger in action. He's standing by with more on what you're picking up, what you're seeing, Bill.

Tell us how the governor is doing.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what a governor has to do in this situation is try to reassure people that the situation is under control.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): In a natural disaster, people want to believe the government is in control, even if it's really not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's the wind that controls the destiny of the homes and the communities.

SCHNEIDER: After 9/11, Mayor Rudy Giuliani was out there, trying to reassure frightened New Yorkers. After Hurricane Katrina, no one seemed to be in control.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger went from action hero in the movies to take-charge governor, or governor-elect, when wildfires broke out in 2003.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: I, in my movies, played heroes, but those firefighters are true heroes.

SCHNEIDER: Or this year, when the San Francisco Bay Bridge collapsed, and he pledged:

SCHWARZENEGGER: We can cut through all the red tape and cut through the bureaucracy. SCHNEIDER: Schwarzenegger has championed the unsexy cause of repairing the state's deteriorating infrastructure, including the vulnerable levee system.

SCHWARZENEGGER: It's just the sandbags that are protecting us from a disaster right now. I mean, it's ridiculous.

SCHNEIDER: Being there from disasters helped him recover from some first-term blunders, and hobble to a triumphant reelection. Now he has to be there again to reassure people who face devastating losses.

SCHWARZENEGGER: We're going to make sure that the people are not out there on their own.

SCHNEIDER: And to show empathy.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I am heartbroken to see those kinds of things, because these are people that have saved their money for many, many years, and they finally got their home.

SCHNEIDER: He still faces tough tests. He has to deliver. Yes, President Bush is going to California. "So what?" the state's lieutenant governor, a Democrat, mused. "We have the Terminator out here."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Governor Schwarzenegger's latest job approval rating, 57 percent. President Bush's latest approval rating in California, 27 percent -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Bill, thanks very much.

And I want to show our viewers some pictures that we're just getting in from San Diego. This is the so-called Witch fire. And you can see the devastation. This is just part. As this camera pans out wide, you will see a neighborhood basically destroyed, some houses miraculously intact, but then, right next door, these houses are simply, simply destroyed. It's a heartbreaking scene.

And you can see it. These are live pictures coming in right now from our affiliate out there, the so-called Witch fire in California. We will bring you more of these pictures as they come in, only one small, small part of the devastation unfolding in California still right now.

And all these horrific wildfires are creating nightmares for Californians in many ways. Adding to the crisis, power lines that connect the state to the nation's power grid, those power lines right now are in jeopardy.

CNN's Allan Chernoff is covering this part of the story.

How bad is this power situation potentially, Allan?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is a major crisis right now as we speak, because one of the power corridors, one of two power corridors that serve San Diego County, it is out right now. And it is out because of the fire that has been going on right behind me here, the Harris fire. That has forced the utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, to shut down that corridor.

And, as a result, the utility is struggling to keep power on for customers. It's even turned to Mexico to buy power from Mexico, and it's being transmitted through the grid along some of the local lines here. But, right now, 20,000 homes are without power. And the utility is saying, later today, that number is guaranteed to rise as people come home and start using more power. So, the utility is begging its customers to conserve.

BLITZER: Allan, thanks very much -- Allan Chernoff on the scene.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't do that load of laundry. Don't watch TV, if you can resist. Please don't rush your dishwasher. If you can live without your air conditioning on, we would greatly request that you do that, because it is very important for us to conserve energy with these power lines being damaged and the transmission lines being damaged by the fire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHERNOFF: The utility is saying it will take at least one day, maybe two, to get that transmission corridor back up.

So, Wolf, right now, the situation is very, very dicey. Potentially, we could have a major crisis here. Lots more customers could be losing their power.

BLITZER: All right. We will watch to see how this part of the story unfolds. Allan, thanks very much.

California's Senator Barbara Boxer is on the ground in her home state right now.

And, just a few moments ago, I asked her if local authorities were getting the help they needed from the federal government to fight the raging wildfires.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: They are getting full cooperation from FEMA, the National Guard, the federal firefighters, and that everything is working very well. Now, we may find some snags later, but it's a good report.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And we will have more of our interview with Senator Boxer. That's coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're also following the breaking news on the California fires from various other angles, much more on this story coming up. We will go inside the stadium, the NFL football stadium, where so many evacuees are waiting and worrying. Are they getting the help and the hope they desperately need?

Also coming up, look at this, the vice president's catnap. What's going on?

And President Bush's new tough talk aimed at Fidel Castro's Cuba. We will tell you what the president had to say today.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: These are live pictures that you're seeing of the so- called Witch fire in San Diego. We're watching this whole neighborhood simply destroyed, some houses completely leveled as a result of these fires. Miraculously, a house next door survives. It's a weird, weird situation.

You can see this neighborhood once was a beautiful neighborhood in San Diego, but take a look at these shots. You see these homes simply, simply burned to the ground. You can make out the swimming pool, but you can't make out much of a home. But, then again, right next door, you see some houses that did survive.

And, then, if you continue to watch, right across the street, houses are destroyed, not much left at all. Some houses live. Other houses simply die.

With flames threatening their lives, people had only minutes to grab a few belongings and leave their homes, perhaps, as we just saw, for good. That story is confronting crisis counselors over and over again at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. That's the home of the NFL San Diego Chargers.

Thelma Gutierrez is joining us from there. She's there right now.

All right. Tell us about these crisis centers that have unfolded, because people are in pain, Thelma.

THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They sure are, Wolf.

You have people who are walking around, they have this dazed look on their face, very unsure about what the future holds for them. They're not sure even if they have anything to return home to. And, so, there have been makeshift offices that have set up to help up throughout Qualcomm to help the 12,000 people who are here, not just adults, but lots of senior citizens, who are very worried.

They have a special place set up for them, talking them through some of these steps that they need to go through to deal with their grief. They also have an area out here, Wolf, to deal with the children, where children are actually going through art therapy. They're drawing pictures about what they're feeling, because this is very traumatic for so many people who are here at Qualcomm.

Now, we walked into the stadium a short time ago, and we saw bedrolls out in the corridors, where people are sleeping on the floor on cots. They have tents that are pitched. There are folks who are also sitting in the stands, and they're just gazing at the television set, watching local news. And all they're seeing day and night are images of San Diego burning.

And so many of these folks have questions about what they have to return home to. And that is why so many of the volunteer crisis counselors have given their time to come here to Qualcomm to help them out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What we have seen here is amazing lost eyes, a lot of grief, a lot of, what do we do next? The insurance companies are here.

The people who are needing services, not just now, but into the future, because their immediate needs are being taken care of now, but they are not knowing what to do with their emotions, the anger, the loss of -- well, what's happened? You know, the evacuation places, but is my home still standing?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GUTIERREZ: Now, there's a tent that is set up by FEMA. It's manned by 70 different people. And folks are coming in. They're telling FEMA what has happened to their homes, whether they have been damaged or destroyed.

And just a couple steps away is that crisis counseling tent to try to help them out with some of their feelings -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Thelma, thanks very much. Our heart goes out to those individuals clearly in crisis right now.

If you would like to watch continuing coverage, by the way, of the California fires from your computer laptop, you can go to our online network, CNN.com. Choose from multiple live feeds or from our wide selection of videos -- all that at CNN.com.

As the wildfires continue to rage on, I-Reporters in Southern California are constantly sending us their pictures, their videos.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, has been going through hundreds of these images. And she's joining us now live.

What are we going to be seeing right now, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it's not just the images. It's the stories behind them, as we talk to these I- Reporters. I want to take you through the close call that one family had yesterday. This is Matt Dunbar from his sister's house in Lake Forest, California, not under an evacuation order, though the sister had left with her family just as a precaution.

Matt says they were pretty calmly watching the flames over on the hillside, when the wind changed, and then everything changed with it. Look, the flames starting coming down the hillside, hit this tree, intensified. He said the flames were coming within 30 feet of their house.

He was doing everything he could to try and save the house. He said he wasn't much match with his garden hose against the flames. But, as soon as they started to get nervous, it was all over. The winds changed again, took the flames away, and saved this neighborhood right here.

He said the entire thing was over in less than five minutes.

Other houses, of course, not spared. Andrew Huse traveled through the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood that I'm showing now, where the Witch fire had passed through. He said it was crazy just how random it was, the house there in the middle completely level, the ones either side of it spared entirely.

There's a list of the houses that have been destroyed at sandiego.gov, Wolf. And we're asking for these photos, as long as they are sent in safely, CNN.com/ireport.

BLITZER: Thank you. Those are amazing pictures, Abbi. Thanks very much.

Questions also being raised today about resources for firefighters on the front lines in California right now. At issue, could more aircraft have been sent to the scene faster?

Let's go to CNN's Kara Finnstrom -- Kara.

KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, some real frustration here in the San Diego area over how rapidly these wildfires spread, and what some are saying is a reluctance to get all of the military aircraft that are available in this area up into the air and making water drops.

Now, earlier today, a group of congressmen announced that they made a deal that will actually get more of these military helicopters off of the tarmac. At issue here was a requirement that would only allow military aircraft to get up in the air if they had specially trained spotters on board, people who know how to look for problems on the ground when you're fighting fires.

Well, Congressman Hunter worked with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention to get that requirement temporarily lifted. And he says, as of today, 19 more helicopters will be lifting off the tarmac.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The idea that we had choppers sitting on the runway for the last couple of days, with the Marine Corps leader, General Leonard (ph), saying, we're ready to go, give us a signal, we will go get after that fire, and not being allowed to lift off didn't make any sense.

CAPTAIN SCOTT MCLEAN, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PREVENTION: Number-one priority, let's talk about communication. We need to get them to have the same communication as us, especially in limited airspace fighting a fire.

If you have 15 helicopters up in the air, and they're all trying to make drops, and we're requesting certain areas on the ground where we need those drops, and we can't get anybody and get any help, you can imagine what gets -- what happens with that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FINNSTROM: Well, the inability to get more military aircraft up into the air was also a big concern after the Cedar fire of 2003, which was largely considered the worst fire in state history up until these current firestorms.

For now, these restrictions have been lifted, as these current blazes are battled. But you can be sure that the debate over whether getting up more military aircraft either jeopardizes or helps the overall fight will be continuing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Kara, thanks very much.

And we are going to continue our extensive coverage of these fires in California. Not going to go away for very long.

But there's other news we are going to be watching as well, including New York. It isn't usually considered to be the nation's political mainstream, which makes a new poll about a pair of very different Empire State residents somewhat surprising. We're going to talk about it in our "Strategy Session."

Plus, cameras catch the vice president in an unguarded moment. Is he looking down or is he nodding off?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: These are new pictures that we're just getting from Running Springs out in California, near Arrowhead out there. You can see these flames. These are pictures that were literally just taken. This is new video just coming into the THE SITUATION ROOM, showing the flames still continue. This fire is not out yet.

It didn't take long for California's fire disaster to start a political firestorm here in Washington. The Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, is already slamming the Bush administration for not devoting enough money to wildfire suppression.

Let's get to our "Strategy Session" right now. Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons and Republican strategist John Feehery, they're here.

Here's an excerpt of what Harry Reid said. We will play the sound bit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: We shouldn't have to fight with the president every time we have an appropriation bill to get money we know we're going to need. We have had these wildfires in the West now for a number of years, and we need more money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: John, what do you think? Is this going to create the political firestorm -- hate to use that word -- in Washington that we saw after Katrina?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I hope not.

I will tell you, I feel bad for those poor folks who lost their homes. Those pictures are just absolutely terrible. When you have someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who shows nonpartisanship, real leadership -- he's taken the politics out -- and then you have someone like Harry Reid, the contrast is really astounding.

People don't want politics when it comes to disasters. That's why Kathleen Blanco lost in Louisiana and Bobby Jindal won so easily, because he said: I want to be non-controversial. I want to just do the job.

And that's what people want. That's why people dislike Washington so much.

BLITZER: What about that, Jamal?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think Harry Reid is getting into something which is absolutely appropriate, which is, this president always reacts to things afterwards. But what we need is a president who can judge from the mistakes he's made in the past and take care of those things in advance.

And I got to tell you, I watch what is going on out in California, and it's a little bittersweet, because I'm very happy that the people who are there, who are in the midst of this tragedy are being served as well as they are. But it reminds me of how badly and how ill-served the people in New Orleans were when this happened during Katrina.

BLITZER: There is a contrast. And you could argue that the federal government and local and state authorities, they learned the lessons of Katrina, and they're now doing a much better job dealing with this crisis. FEEHERY: I think it also shows the political leadership at the state level, where someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger and -- did the planning, and with someone like Kathleen Blanco in Louisiana, who did such a poor job, as did the mayor of New Orleans. It was just horrible from the get-go.

And I will tell you, that's the real contrast. And planning makes a difference. The fact of the matter is, these things happen periodically, and you need planning to make an effective response.

SIMMONS: That's not completely fair, because, if you look at what happened in New Orleans, what you saw were the differences -- there are about 1,500 houses and businesses right now in California that have been destroyed. There were 250,000-plus houses and businesses that were destroyed in the Gulf Coast region during Katrina.

And, at the same time, you know, the mayor's office, the fire department, the police department, all those places were under water in New Orleans. So, the local response was going to be hampered. The federal government really needed to step up.

And I got to tell you, there are some people who look at this who say, if the people in New Orleans looked like the people in Malibu, the president may have acted a little bit sooner.

BLITZER: Well, wait a minute, because that's a serious charge you're making.

SIMMONS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: And you're saying there was an element of racism involved in New Orleans, but because so many of the people in Southern California are white, the government acts differently?

SIMMONS: It could be race. It could be class. What we know is that there were poor black people who were stranded in the city of New Orleans who were not being tended to. And that's not what's happening right now.

And this is -- this is absolutely appropriate for them to be doing what they're doing out in Malibu right now, but you can't help but notice the difference in reaction...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Because we have gotten a lot of e-mail that makes that point to us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, saying that the difference in the reaction is the difference in the nature of the individuals, in New Orleans, in Louisiana, a lot of black people, and a lot of white people in California.

FEEHERY: Well, I don't -- I'm not going to get into that part of the discussion. I do think it has a lot to do with the political leadership on the ground at the local level, the political leadership at the state level, that, with the effective leadership of Arnold Schwarzenegger, vs. the absolutely ineffective leadership of Kathleen Blanco, I think you see the contrast with real government that works well, and dysfunctional government that works very poorly in New Orleans.

BLITZER: All right.

Before I let both of you go, "The L.A. Times"/Bloomberg have new some horse race numbers, a snapshot of the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns, Senator Clinton with 48 percent, Obama 17, Edwards 13, a huge lead nationwide...

SIMMONS: Nationwide.

BLITZER: ... among registered for Senator Clinton.

On the Republican side, a big lead for Giuliani, 32 percent for Giuliani, Fred Thompson at 15, McCain 13, Romney 11.

What do you make of a New York, an all-New York contest, potentially, that could emerge?

SIMMONS: Sort of a presidential subway series?

BLITZER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMMONS: I don't think we're going to -- I'm not sure we're actually going to see that.

If we end up in that situation, this could be a real big shocker. But I think what you -- when you look at both of these polls, the polls that I look at are the ones that are taking place in the states. In Iowa right now, Senator Clinton has got about a five-point lead, on average. Giuliani is behind in Iowa. He's behind in South Carolina. There's a little bit -- you have got to pay attention to these statewide polls. We all remember what happened in 2003 and '4.

FEEHERY: I think Jamal is right, to a certain extent, although I will say, the media would love a Rudy-Hillary matchup. I think it's kind of like the Cubs and the Red Sox getting in the World Series. It would be a big deal for the media. It would be kind of that fight, that titans fight, that people would love so much and make the -- this election very interesting.

BLITZER: John Feehery and Jamal Simmons, thanks, guys.

SIMMONS: Thank you.

BLITZER: The vice president, Dick Cheney, might need a wakeup call. Get a load of this. Coming up, a story behind a picture that seems to show the vice president falling asleep through a meeting at the White House.

Also, some very tough talk about Cuba. We are going to tell you what President Bush is saying about what Fidel Castro's regime might look like after Fidel.

And we have much more ahead on this afternoon's breaking news story, the California fires continuing. The evacuees who have lost everything, we are going to be speaking with some of them.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We will get back to Southern California and the fires in a moment.

But, on our Political Ticker this Wednesday, the vice president, Dick Cheney, caught on videotape. The video was taken during a Cabinet meeting over at the White House today. The president was being briefed on the California wildfires. But check it out. Cheney appears appears -- appears -- to be nodding off, albeit briefly.

Democrats Bob -- Bob Kerrey says he won't run for the open U.S. Senate seat in Nebraska next year. The former governor and U.S. senator says he decided against a run because of family concerns and his work as president of the New School University in New York. That's a blow to Democrats, who saw Kerrey as their best chance to win the seat now held by retiring Republican Senator Chuck Hagel.

And, remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Let's go to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the question this hour is, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost $2.4 trillion through the next decade. So, we asked how you think that money could be better spent?

Jeff writes from Maryland: "I'm convinced the Iraq war was 43's reelection centerpiece, making the 2004 presidential race truly the most expensive political contest in history. He drained the U.S. treasury and indebted generations of Americans to come to ensure that he will hold on to the White House. Quite a feat for a National Guard pilot of some distinction, eh?"

Eric in Michigan: "Where to begin. How about higher education? I feel like I'm fighting a war of my own against these student loans I have had to take out."

Linda in Illinois writes: "The money cannot be better spent than on and for our freedom. How much is your freedom worth? I would gladly pay three times the $8,000 that is my share. Where do I send the check?"

Jeff in Orlando, Florida: "How about funding full medical coverage for all U.S. citizens, funding Social Security, and, with the leftover money, impeach George the almighty and fire the Congress?"

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Hey, there's an idea.

Joaquin writes: "Since it's borrowed money, maybe we shouldn't spend it. Why must we burden our children's children with our debt? It's about time this nation understands this war is ruining the financial stability of this country."

Jack in Long Island writes: "The amount of money could be used to place solar panels on every home in America. We could become energy independent, and the entire Arab world will have to figure out something to do with their now worthless black lead."

And Tom in Maine writes: "Jack, the money could be better spent by using it to buy out your contract, so we wouldn't have to listen to your endless biased anti-Bush droning."

They could buy it out for a lot less than that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack, very much.

To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening right now: almost a million people forced to flee for their lives in California. Some have already lost everything. We're going to hear from one man who watched his house go up in flames -- his family of five now homeless.

This is what people will come home to, a neighborhood north of San Diego devastated, as if by a massive bomb. We're going to show you the stunning images of the fire's destruction.

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