Return to Transcripts main page
ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
Authorities Investigate Arson in Southern California Fires; Firefighters Attempt to Contain Wildfires
Aired October 25, 2007 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: There's hope tonight, sadness, a number of arson investigations going on, and suspicion all around. In one fire, the Santiago blaze, big-money rewards being offered, the FBI deeply involved. We have the latest on the ongoing investigations.
Now, the hope is on the fire lines, crews fighting many of the wildfires to a standstill and beating some of them completely. That's the good news, 13 fires now 100 percent contained. The massive Witch fire 20 percent contained, compared to just 10 percent yesterday, progress. The Harris fire is stubborn, but not getting worse, holding at 10 percent containment.
Hope, but sadness as well. Six more deaths to report since last. Sadness, too, as people discover they have lost everything, even as their next-door neighbors find their property virtually untouched. We have seen that on the street behind me here and many communities around San Diego.
Hope and sadness, random mercy, and savagery side by side, that's what in the hour ahead, hope and the sheer contrast in the response to this disaster and Hurricane Katrina.
California's governor seemingly everywhere, the president on the ground early, but sadness and serious questions. Did tight federal money leave Southern California dangerously unprepared? We will investigate all that ahead. We're going to be exploring a lot tonight.
Also, a 360 exclusive, a real ride on Navy water-dumping mission. Fires make heat. Heat rises. And that means brutal turbulence with margin for error. The thing is, as risky as it is, chopper pilots train for moments like these. Some even live for them. The tough question, though, were they sent in too late? And did the area have too few of them to make a difference between things got truly out of hand? We're "Keeping Them Honest."
All that and more, as I said, starting with a quick wrap of where things stand right now.
COOPER (voice-over): On the front lines of the disaster, a day of progress and pain.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We lost everything. COOPER: Charred, in ruins, much of Southern California is scorched to the ground, obliterated by the massive wildfires. Officials suspect some were sparked by downed power lines and accidentally by construction workers. Others were intentionally set.
Authorities have arrested at least five people on charges of arson, but there have been no arrests into the investigation into the Santiago fire. The case, however, is just getting started.
CHIEF CHIP PRATHER, ORANGE COUNTY FIRE AUTHORITY: We have a number of leads to follow. This is a complex incident. And we desperately want to catch the people or person that did this. It is a confirmed arson.
COOPER: Meanwhile, the death toll continues to climb. The bodies of two more people were found in a burned-out home in San Diego, and four move believed to be illegal immigrants were found burned in a canyon east of San Diego.
As for the battle, several wildfires are still raging out of control. At the same time, promising signs, a few of the fires have been extinguished. Firefighters are also hoping calmer winds will give them the upper hand in a catastrophe that has so far has destroyed thousands of homes and buildings, in all incinerating more than half-a-million acres.
Today, President Bush flew from Washington, touring with Governor Schwarzenegger the devastation from above and on the ground. With lessons learned from the government's failed response to Hurricane Katrina, the president promised immediate help.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First thing I want to let the people know out here in Southern California is that many across our nation have been moved by the plight of the citizens who have lost their homes, lost their possessions, and particularly those who have lost their life. It's very important for those who are wondering about their future to know there's a lot of good citizens all across America who are praying for your future.
COOPER: And, in San Diego, finally heading home. Authorities say all residential areas inside the city are open again. While hundreds of thousands of evacuees have yet to return, some people are coming back and finding only memories await.
COOPER: So hard for so many.
More now on the Santiago investigation, in the early stages, but, as one investigator told us last night, there are clear patterns even in the ashes that can reveal where a fire started, where it went, and everyone hopes, tell authorities who started it.
More on that now from CNN's John Zarrella.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: The fire started here Sunday, where the Santiago and Silverado canyons meet. The burn-out land is now marked by crime scene tape. Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents spent today at the scene looking for more evidence.
This, they say, is one of the two places where the Santiago Canyon fire was set. And there's no question, investigators say, it was arson.
Orange County officials fire who got to the scene on Sunday first say that within minutes it had spread miles.
PRATHER: The person or persons who did this either are exceptionally lucky or they have some knowledge about where you might want to do the most damage when you set a fire.
ZARRELLA: The investigation is just in its initial stage. No arrests have been made, no search warrants issued, and investigators won't say what evidence they have collected. Many residents who live here spend their time at the bottom of the canyon road waiting. They want only two things, to be allowed home and to get their hands on whoever did this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't believe that anybody would actually do something like that to people they don't even know. If you want my true feelings, I would like to have 15 minutes with the guy alone.
ZARRELLA: Others like John Cunningham (ph) are so angry, they don't even want to talk about it.
(on camera): And how do you feel, just knowing now that somebody did this on purpose?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not even prepared to go there right now. So, bigger concerns right now. The family's safe. I believe the house is OK, and I believe the that professionals are on it.
ZARRELLA: The Santiago canyon fire has burned at least 25,000 acres, forced thousands from their homes. And, as difficult as it may be to comprehend, this may not be the only one of the California fires caused by arson.
So far, charges have been filed against at least five people suspected of arson. Wednesday one man was arrested in Los Angeles County after police say witnesses said they saw him lighting a fire on a hillside in the West Hills. That same day another man was arrested in San Bernardino County after police say he was spotted squatting on the side of the road setting a fire. A third man was arrested on charges of setting a fire, although police aren't saying where and when it allegedly happened.
Also, San Diego County officials say that a juvenile and another man were arrested after they were seen starting a fire that was quickly extinguished before it did damage to nearby buildings.
(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: John, how do they know the Santiago fire was arson?
ZARRELLA: Well, what's really interesting, Anderson, is that the investigators were telling me earlier today that you go into the scene and they got there very quickly after it had all burned through. You take a look and you can do it by process of elimination.
There were no downed power lines. There were no lightning strikes in the area. So, by process of elimination they can arrive at a conclusion that, hey, look it, this was probably caused by humans -- Anderson.
COOPER: And there were reports that police in San Bernardino shot and killed an arson suspect. What do we know about that?
ZARRELLA: Well, what we know about that is that police are telling us that does not appear at all to be related to arson at this point. So, they're saying, no, that's not a case of arson, but we have to point out that these people, these five arrests that they have made, no linkage yet to the major fires burning from San Diego up through the Los Angeles area -- Anderson.
COOPER: All right. John, thanks.
Michael Carona is the sheriff of Orange County. He joins us now tonight from the scene of the fire.
Sheriff Carona, there are now five total arson related arrests, none linked to the Santiago fire. Why are you folks certain that the Santiago fire is arson?
MIKE CARONA, ORANGE COUNTY SHERIFF: Well, again, I think you have heard from John, there were no lightning strikes, there were no downed power lines. Frankly we have had a good team in there going through the analytics. What they found at the scene, there was an incendiary device.
We can't go any further describing it, other than saying that we know this was an ignited fire, two points of ignition. So, we know it's an arson. Now we're looking for a suspect or suspects.
COOPER: Can you say how far apart the two points of ignition were?
CARONA: You know, I can't. That's part of an ongoing investigation. We did take news cameras out earlier today, let them see the point of origination, but we haven't gotten into any of the actual metrics about how far apart the two points of ignition were.
COOPER: All right. Fair enough.
During today's press conference, one official said that the person that did this was either exceptionally lucky or probably knew how to set a fire and cause maximum damage. What makes you think that? CARONA: Well, that was Fire Chief Chip Prather. The guy has been around as long as I have, over 30 years . He knows what he's talking about.
He understands the dynamics of how fires begin. And when you have somebody with that type of expertise giving you that type of information, you can take it to the bank that it was either somebody that was very lucky or somebody knew exactly what they were doing when they set those devices.
COOPER: When you're doing an investigation like this, are there profiles of people who set fires? I mean, are there a certain type of person you're looking for?
On any -- on any type of case, you have profiles of individuals who have a high propensity for doing these types of things. And I can tell you the partnership right now with the Orange County Fire Authority taking the lead in this investigation, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, the FBI, and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, this collaboration of four agencies working very, very hard to go through known suspects, possible suspects.
But, really, it's going to be the public -- and that's why we're coming out to the media -- giving us a clue to anybody they may have seen in the area that we can follow up with, ask a few questions, and determine whether or not they are a suspect in this case.
COOPER: And, I mean, you say you have profiles. Can you say what kind of person does this? It's hard to imagine I think for a lot of folks what thrill anyone gets out of this. Is it thrill-seeking? What is it?
CARONA: Well, I'm not a behavioral scientist, so I can't get into the biomechanics behind why somebody does something like this.
When I talk about profiles, people who have been arrested for arson in the past, or who have, as part of charges they have been charged with, an arson background, they go into a master database that we have in law enforcement. So, that's the first thing we cull through, individuals who have committed crimes like that in the past. We look at those individuals with their proximity to this particular location, their availability.
Where were they at that point in time? They become a natural lead for us. It's not the type of profiling where we have already gotten into somebody's mind, and so we're looking for a particular type of person based upon their mental profile.
COOPER: I understand the reward now has gone up significantly.
CARONA: It has.
KFI, which is a local radio station out here in Southern California, they have been broadcasting like you all have for quite a while with us. They decided to step up big time. They put $100,000 in as a reward. That takes the overall reward to $250,000. Governor Schwarzenegger has posted $50,000, the FBI $50,000, and ATF $50,000. Now, with KFI, that is $250,000 that we have out there for the arrest and conviction of these suspects, or suspect.
COOPER: Sheriff Carona, appreciate your time, sir. Thank you.
CARONA: Hey, thank you, Anderson.
COOPER: On the evacuation front, there was some confusion today. People in the city of San Diego were allowed back in, but homes in the outlying areas of San Diego County are still off-limits.
And as you have been seeing, when they're allowed in, many of them will find their homes are gone. The latest numbers put the total number of homes destroyed at 1,600. And that's probably going to rise. There are 23 fires, 10 of them still not fully contained.
Here's a look at the largest fire, starting on the Mexican border with the Harris fire. It's more than 80,000 acres, only 10 percent contained. We showed you that up close yesterday. The damage where I am tonight was caused by the Witch fire, which has spread and joined with the Poomacha fires, covering more than 230,000 acres. It's only 20 percent contained.
Up towards Los Angeles, in Orange county, the Santiago fire, that's burned more than 23,000 acres, still spreading, now only 30 percent contained. That's the one believed to be set by an arsonist.
And the Ranch fire near Castaic has burned more than 55,000 acres. And that is 70 percent contained.
How that map evolves is going to depend of course on how the weather changes.
So, for that, let's turn to CNN's Chad Myers -- Chad.
CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Anderson, the winds have died off. They really have.
Taking a look at this satellite picture, it's the same picture essentially that we have been showing you all week, but, on Monday, especially Monday, we had streamlines of smoke blowing out to the ocean.
Well, today, we a very confused-looking map. It's confused because the winds frankly are confused themselves. Some blowing in from the west, some here still from the east, and so now this smoke is going to start to swirl around L.A. It's not going to move out. In San Diego, it's not going to move out. It may move eastward toward Palm Desert and also maybe Twentynine Palms.
Here's an animation of where the smoke goes over the next 48 hours. We're going to start right from scratch right now. Here's where the smoke is. It's going to start to drift to the east. And some of these numbers in Palm Springs, 15,000 parts per million, big- time smoke particles in the air, then maybe even getting all the way up to Vegas.
And now we know that up towards Bakersfield and into Merced, we have these health warnings going on, saying, hey, if you have asthma, if you have any kind of breathing problems at all, expect a very bad couple of days. Temperatures are going to be mild, 75 San Diego, 93 right now in Phoenix, but it is going to be a smoky mess for at least a couple of weeks, Anderson, because we talk about containment, but these fires are still smoking. And now if the smoke is not getting blown away, it's going to stay there for everyone to breathe in. Kind of unhealthy.
COOPER: Yes, unhealthy indeed. Chad, thanks. We will check in with you throughout this evening.
In San Diego County alone, the damage, money damage estimate now tops a billion dollars. It's likely to rise likely to record levels. California is already home to the three worst insured losses due to wildfires in the U.S. Here's the "Raw Data" on that.
Ranked third was the old San Bernardino fire in the fall of 2003, also with more than a billion dollars in damage. Second place during the same time period, the Cedar fire here in San Diego County, that one left behind a cleanup costing upwards of $1.1 billion. And the most expensive wildfire struck the Oakland area in October 2001 with a $2.5 billion price tag. Hard to believe.
Well, to keep the damage down, firefighters have been racing the clock before the wind shifts again. Up next, fighting fires in a place that normally is a picture postcard resort. Now it is the front line, Lake Arrowhead. We will take you there.
And a tragic discovery in the ashes, two people who did not escape the flames alive. Why didn't they get out? Their story when this special edition of 360 continues.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The way the wind is blowing right now, it's barely missing, but, oh, they're big. I got to go. Oh, it's going to be a close call, bro. It's going to be a close call. Oh, shoot. OK. It's going to be a very close call.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Someone deciding whether or not to leave their home.
Right now, there are nearly two dozen wildfires in the area, some contained, some not. With fear that winds may pick up this weekend, firefighters are doing whatever they can right now to stop the flames before they spread even further.
And one of the hardest-hit areas is Lake Arrowhead. That's east of Los Angeles.
And that is where CNN's Ted Rowlands is right now.
Ted, what's the scene?
TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, a lot of progress today. Conditions were ideal. You could see the wind is almost nonexistent. The smoke is just going straight up. They have been able to hit the fronts here with the aerial attack throughout the day.
Two fires up here, one is 40 percent contained, one zero percent contained. Those were numbers earlier from today. We expect both of those to go up.
Not everybody evacuated during this fire, believe it or not. There are 12,000 people out of their homes, but some people up in this mountainous area decided that they were going to stick it out. We met one of those people today.
ROWLANDS (voice-over): What kind of person would stay when a fire like this is coming at you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You could hear it coming. You could see it coming. And the roar, it was sounding like a jet.
ROWLANDS: Scott Garrett (ph) is a self-described survivalist living in the San Bernardino Mountains. He stayed behind with his next-door neighbor as others evacuated, and says the fire was liking nothing he had ever experienced or even imagined.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And all the embers then started raining down. And it was like roofing and stuffing from furniture, and all this flaming debris was coming down.
ROWLANDS: Garrett says he and his neighbor used simple garden hoses, buckets filled with water and shovels throwing dirt, to fight the flames, and they saved several homes. He says they battled for more than 12 hours.
(on camera): You could have been killed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no.
ROWLANDS (voice-over): Garrett says he and his neighbor had an exit plan and could have escaped at the last second, saying they had been planning this scenario for two years. Dozens of people around him did evacuate and ended up losing their homes.
Fire officials say what Garrett and his neighbor did was foolish and that they absolutely could have been killed. A downed power line, a wind shift, even an ember can easily kill or injure. After going through it, even Garrett acknowledges staying behind was more dangerous than he thought.
(on camera): Would you advise other people to do what you did? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely not. No.
COOPER: Hard to believe, Ted, that he stayed behind like that.
So, the scene behind you, are those active fires or is that just smoke from old fires?
ROWLANDS: Well, this is an active fire, but it's on the back edge of a ridge that they are more concerned of. They have been making some drops in here and they have hand crews were on Highway 18 making sure this that doesn't go over the highway.
But you can see the sheer mass of smoke and fires. These are all little fires at the leading edge of this. What's working to their advantage is the fact that the wind has shifted twice today and it's really eating itself up. So, the strategy is, because there are no homes in this immediate area, let it burn, especially the underbrush, attack the areas that are still threatening homes, come back to this if need be.
Mother Nature, as horrible as the conditions were when these fires started, they're perfect right now. That said, the conditions here are still very dangerous, a lot of downed power lines because this is mountainous terrain. People who have been evacuated have been told they may not be able to come back to their homes for at least another week. A lot of work to be done.
COOPER: Wow. Still going on.
Ted, thanks for the reporting.
Tragic discoveries here in San Diego County today, four bodies found in a canyon. The victims believed to be illegal immigrants. And in a practices location, fire crews were finding two charred bodies in the ruins of a house. The local sheriff's department says it does not suspect foul play.
But question remains about, why didn't those two evacuate as the flames approached?
CNN's John King has more.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is here, about five hours apart late Wednesday and early Thursday, that police found the two charred bodies, buried in the rubble of the Witch Creek blaze in the hillside property they refused to leave, even after neighbors warned of the approaching danger.
(on camera): The view from the property is breathtaking. But if you look over the hill and down into the valley, you can also see the path scorched by the Witch Creek Fire. And as it swept through this area and came on up, you can see right here the awesome combination of the heat and the wind as the fire came up over the hill and attacked the property.
(voice-over): The hilltop house is destroyed -- the molten metal proof the fire's intensity. It was midnight Monday when neighbors pleaded with the man and woman to leave. Police first visited Tuesday and a cursory search of the rubble turned up no human remains.
(on camera): But the police returned Wednesday after family members filed a missing person's report. It is down the hill a bit from the residence in this garage and workshop building where the bodies were discovered and taken away by the medical examiner.
(voice-over): Fifteen-eight-thirty-four Highland Valley Road is in a remote area of Poway, just north of San Diego. The road in winds past downed power lines and scorched fields. The Christmas tree farm escaped with little damage. But much of the terrain is scorched, especially up the hillside, where chickens wander amid the rubble and the yellow tape marks the spot where, even as the ferocious blaze approached, a man and a woman ignored pleas to leave.
COOPER: John King joins us now.
You have learned more about the four people believed to be illegal immigrants also.
KING: That's right. It's a camp in a canyon. It's about 33 miles east of San Diego, some mobile homes there.
The authorities believe roughly up to 100 illegal immigrants, migrant workers live in that camp. They found four bodies -- it's three males and one female -- badly charred. The medical examiner is on the way to the scene now. There are cadaver dogs searching, although the medical examiner, sources in that office tell me they believe just four bodies there.
But it's a steep canyon. It's difficult terrain, so they're looking if there could be more, four bodies there. These two found today, we're told, have been positively identified, the identification to be released a bit later tonight.
And as we were leaving the scene in Poway earlier tonight, where those two bodies were found earlier, we saw some family members coming to look at the scene.
COOPER: And a lot of these fires are in areas where illegal immigrants use to get across the border. I was down by the Harris fire yesterday.
And they were saying, one hill in particular, they're well- traveled trails. And that's a real concern with these fires, that people...
KING: It certainly is a concern, not only because they're not legal residents. Obviously, they're not covered by services like electricity, like routine law enforcement, and at the same time they believe many of the illegal immigrations would be afraid to leave.
KING: If they go south of the border, they're worried if they can come back. And they have no family in the area, so they have nowhere to go. That's one of the reasons a search will continue in those camps probably for days to come.
COOPER: All right. John King, appreciate it. Thanks.
Up next, they lost nearly everything, except hope -- one family's bittersweet journey to what little is left of home.
We will be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, it burnt everything. Oh, my God.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: So hard to believe for so many.
With more evacuations being lifted today, homeowners are starting to return to their homes or, as you saw, what is left of them. Each time, it is a heart-wrenching ordeal.
We spoke to one family who, despite losing nearly everything, were able to find a small ray of hope.
CNN's Thelma Gutierrez has their story.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my gosh.
THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For the Perry (ph) family, it was a long ride home.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was a beautiful home right there on the left.
GUTIERREZ: Past charred oak trees and burnt houses. They walked up a long driveway...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, gosh.
GUTIERREZ: ... and saw their home, an unspeakable loss, the home that Hobby Perry (ph) built with his own hands reduced to ashes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And then I got married here on the property. And our kids were born in San Diego, and they have been raised in this house.
GUTIERREZ: It was the only home 14-year-old Kelsey Perry (ph) has ever known.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I got it from my grandma. It was a porcelain elephant.
GUTIERREZ: Kelsey (ph) showed me her bedroom.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My bed was like right here. Pretty much that. Now, my guitar was right next to my bed. I think that thing is my guitar. My computer, my desk was right there. My closet was right there. And my mom and dad's bed was all the way on the other side.
GUTIERREZ: The Perry's built their home in Ramona in 1988. Julie says every square inch was her husband's labor of love.
JULIE PERRY (ph), FIRE VICTIM: He was in high school, he designed it out of cardboard, each room, and he built it exactly the way it was on there, and him and his dad and friends. They all built it with their hands.
GUTIERREZ: Julie and hubby hope to grow old here. All their dreams dashed on Sunday night when the Ramona fire roared through their neighborhood, sending them the Perrys fleeing with their lives with just a photo album and the clothes on their backs.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of my best memories is probably these guys though, and they're still alive so that's what counts. And I stuck around for a little bit to try to think I could fight this, but there's no way.
GUTIERREZ: Amidst all this devastation, a small orange tree survived.
J. PERRY: My dad passed away and he loved oranges, and we planted that for him.
GUTIERREZ: Kelsey says she and her brother Ryan may have lost everything they have, but the fire can't destroy a lifetime of memories.
Thelma Gutierrez, CNN, Ramona, California
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following a number of other stories tonight as well. Gary Tuchman joins us with the "360° Bulletin."
GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, hello to you. We begin on Capitol Hill where the House has approved a scaled-back child health insurance bill, but votes in favor of the so-called S-CHIPs still fall short of the margin needed to override another presidential veto.
President Bush vetoed a measure three weeks ago that would have cost $60 billion. The new bill calls for spending $35 billion over five years. In Pakistan, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is telling CNN she suspects members of the Musharraf regime were indirectly involved in last week's attempt to kill her.
Bhutto says she wrote the president, President Musharraf, informing him of her suspicions. She also wants an independent inquiry into the bombings that killed more than 130 people. Pakistan has said it suspects Al Qaeda was behind the blasts.
From London, a witness claiming to have heard the final words of Princess Diana as she laid dying in a Paris tunnel a decade ago. The former volunteer firefighter telling the panel investigating the crash, that Diana kept repeating, "Oh, my God."
And Britney Spears has managed to avoid a trial over a hit-and- run charge, but she's not out of the woods just yet. The hit-and-run count was dropped after the pop star paid an undisclosed amount of cash to a woman whose car was damaged in the fender bender.
A pretrial hear and another charge of driving without a license is set next month. Britney Spears, Anderson, no stranger now to the U.S. court system.
COOPER: Apparently not. Gary, appreciate that. We'll check in with you a little bit later on.
We want to show you some of the damage. People allowed in this neighborhood to come home today. This is what one family found in their home. Their car, obviously, just completely destroyed and just nothing left.
I mean, where do you even begin in a situation like this to try to pick up the pieces? You can see a filing cabinet. That is about the only identifiable piece of the home that's actually still left.
I want to show you something also over here behind us. A man did find a safe, and he had some of his documents in it, his insurance documents. He called the fire department. They were able to come and open up the safe for him, and the safe actually did protect his documents. They were still in the plastic folder.
So he was able to get some vital documents, passports, things like that. But so many people on this block just home after home, returning to find nothing left.
And, you know, they kind of stand around for a long time. And then, ultimately, they leave as it starts to get dark because they got to figure out, you know, where they're going to go stay. A lot of them are staying with friends' houses tonight, but it's going to be a long, long days and weeks and months ahead for these families.
When we come back, we're going to take you to the fire lines and also kind of stand back and show you the big picture of where all these fires are now. And we've been talking a lot the last couple of days about the smoke and ashes in the air. A lot of us here who've been covering have been coughing. A lot of homeowners here are walking around with masks on. They're not sure if the masks are really going to work. We're going to take a look at what masks are actually helpful in trying to actually protect our lungs and everything else from what's in the air right now. We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GORDON WOOD, LOST HOME TO FIRES: There were flames coming up the hill. We have a very steep hill here, about 3 acres. And the flames were at the house within minutes, so we had less than 5 minutes to get out. We didn't even have time to put on shoes when we left.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was burning as we were leaving.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: We were at their house last night. Nothing left there. Things are certainly better tonight here in southern California. Residents who live within San Diego city limits were allowed to go back home today, and a number of evacuees still in shelters throughout the state is down. Still about a little less than 20,000.
There are still, however, 10 major fires that haven't been contained. This week CNN's Tom Foreman has been trying to use satellite technology to give us the big picture on these fires. He joins me again tonight from Washington -- Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, you're right. This is still such a big problem even as there seems to be improvement.
Look at this. These are the evacuation areas in yellow all around the fires. These are all major fires we're still looking at. And if we change our angle a little bit, you can get a sense of which ones are really the hot spots still to be big time concerned about.
The Harris fire, of course, continues to be a worry. And the witch Pumacha fire still a big deal. A new evacuation order just a very short time ago for this northern part of that fire.
Another issue I want to show you very quickly here. We've been talking about the arson investigations going on. These are the two fires in question there. The Santiago fire and the Rosa fire. But just as important as we look at this, the sense of growth of these fires, how they got to this point is amazing.
These are images from NASA. This is from Monday, where the smoke was. This was Tuesday, what we're getting from it. And look at Wednesday. We measured this and as best we could make out from the curvature of the earth, from Los Angeles out to here is 800 to a thousand miles. Point of reference, in the Hawaiian islands out here.
Just a sense of how enormous this tragedy is, Anderson, and how long it's going to take for it to all truly be over with. It could be quite a while.
COOPER: Wow. All right. And a lot of that smoke, according to Chad Myers, may head back over California if the winds continue to shift.
Now, the fires aren't the only threat. As we've been telling you the past couple of nights, there are serious health risks from what's being released into the air -- that smoke, the ashes, the ember, and a whole lot more. You can be in danger even far away from the flames.
CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen took a look at that and shows us what we can all do for our protection.
ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Look at this. It's not just smoke. It's an airborne toxic soup, full of carbon monoxide, soot, ash, and formaldehyde. If you breathe this in, you could get sick.
Not surprisingly, there's been a run on masks around San Diego. They are not easy to find. It took us hours to find a place that had them. And finally, we found masks at this Home Depot in Poway, the suburb of San Diego. They just received a fresh shipment. But do any of these masks actually work?
The sad reality, according to experts, is that most masks simply will not keep out the junk that's abundant in the unhealthy air in parts of southern California.
Kim Prather is an environmental chemist at the University of California, San Diego.
Now, this one I got to tell you, it feels so flimsy. Is this going to do me any good?
DR. KIM PRATHER, ENVIRONMENTAL CHEMIST, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA: I mean, you can see this is the main sealing. There's gaps all around the sides and so the air is just going to go right through.
COHEN: The problem with masks like these, big particles will indeed bounce off, but little particles can seep right through. And it's the little particles that you have to worry about. They can lodge in your lungs and make you sick.
COHEN (on camera): Now how about these?
So what about the N95 mask considered one of the best?
PRATHER: They have a little bit of sealing on them. But really, they still have the open gap.
COHEN (voice-over): Prather says if you get a good fit with a good seal, it will work. But she says it's almost impossible to get a good fit on anyone.
COHEN (on camera): They're too big on me. They're going to be way too big on a kid.
PRATHER: Right. And that's a problem. I mean, you have to think about who we want to protect the most with these masks. And it's the elderly, people with respiratory problems. I mean kids are -- we really want to protect their lungs, and these are not designed to fit on children's faces.
COHEN: Now, this one she liked because of the seal.
PRATHER: Yes, that one feels good.
PRATHER: That one is actually sealing much better.
COHEN: Yes. But even this one isn't perfect.
PRATHER: It would block out the particle part, the particle -- the sooty stuff, but it's not going to block out the organic, the organic deadly toxic vapors, such as formaldehyde and acrolyn and things -- this carbon monoxide. The gases will not be removed at all.
COHEN: And your data shows those gases are out there.
PRATHER: They're out there.
COHEN: For that, you need this. A Hepa filter mask made to filter out particles and gases. This mask isn't very comfortable and can be hard to find. Probably explains why you don't see people wearing them. Instead, you see people wearing masks that might indeed make them feel better, but masks that likely are not keeping out some of the most toxic stuff lingering in the air they breathe.
COOPER: So that's really worrying. I mean, you see all these people walk around...
COOPER: ... but the stuff is not really working. Even this -- this is the N95, which I always had been told was kind of the best one of these sorts of thing.
COHEN: But, it's certainly better than let's say this flimsy one. But even the N95 if it's not sealing around your face...
COHEN: ... I mean, put it -- put it on, and you can tell. I mean, I can see right here.
COHEN: Air can get in there. Air can get, I mean...
COHEN: It can get it in.
COOPER: I know.
COHEN: I can see places where it can get in. Is it better than nothing? You know, maybe it's better than nothing.
COHEN: But air can still get in.
COOPER: But these ones are just ridiculous. I mean, this is probably flimsy --
COHEN: That's the people we talked to said, forget it. Yes.
COOPER: But this is the Hepa filter one?
COHEN: This is the -- yes. This is the gold seal. It's keeping everything out.
COHEN: If you get the right cartridges, it will block gas.
COOPER: How much does it cost? Do you know?
COHEN: (INAUDIBLE) This one I think is around $20, $25.
COHEN: It's not cheap and you have to replace the filters. You know, another thing, probably a good middle ground is there's one that's called an M100.
COHEN: And what it does, it has this black seal. It's a paper mask with a black seal.
COOPER: But again for kids, it's really tough because they're not built for their faces.
COHEN: Right. For kids it's tough, and what you have to do is you have to talk to your pediatrician. And also, Dr. Prather said you can go online and that various responsible allergy sites, you know, good sites have places where you can buy kid-sized masks. But you can't -- I don't think you can buy them in stores. She said she'd never seen them. You have to go online.
COOPER: But the bottom line is it's not a bad idea to be wearing something. I mean...
COOPER: ... it's not alarmist to be wearing something (INAUDIBLE)
COHEN: Oh, no. I mean, there's stuff that Dr. Prather is doing real-time testing. I sat with her and she said, "OK. There's carbon monoxide. OK, look at all that soot." And these levels are up sometimes like 100 times what they are usually.
COHEN: So, yes, you're not crazy. I mean, we don't all have headaches and sore throats for nothing.
COOPER: You better hold on to that Hepa mask really soon.
COHEN: That's right. And well, you know what, they're hard to find.
COOPER: I know.
COHEN: So if you want one, you will have to rip it out of my hand.
COOPER: You're right. I'll stick with this I guess.
Up next on this special edition of 360°.
Fighting the fires from the air. Was the Navy's assault too little too late? We're keeping them honest, next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: So in a fire like this, there's nothing they can do at this point to save the house. But they're watching it burn to make sure that no spot fires occur, that the wind doesn't carry embers. That's what happened to this tree over here. So they rushed to put that out quickly because they don't want that to spread to somewhere else.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Still fighting those fires. That was on the eastern edge of the Harris fire yesterday.
Rick Sanchez is also here in Rancho Bernardo. At another location, Tami (ph) is hosting LARRY KING LIVE at the top of the hour.
He joins us now with a preview -- Rick.
SANCHEZ: Anderson, if there were National Guard tankers that possibly could have gone over the fire and put some of them out by Saturday, why then weren't they called until Monday and used them?
I put that question to the governor of California, Governor Schwarzenegger, and then the question a lot of people are asking today, this is really a tragic part of this story. Is it possible that some of these homes, like the ones you see behind me that are burned, is it possible that they were burned because someone set these fires on purpose?
The arson investigation, we'll have it for you. Plus, interviews with all the folks who are here who are just coming back and realizing what's left of their homes. We'll have it here on "LARRY KING LIVE." Back to you, Anderson.
COOPER: Rick, thanks very much.
Tonight, nearly 9,000 people have been brought in to fight these fires. And dozens of aircraft are providing aerial assault support. But as Rick just asked, is it enough and did it come too late?
CNN's Randi Kaye is investigating. Just keeping them honest.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is what it looks like to fight a wildfire from the air. We're on board a Navy helicopter on a water drop mission over San Diego County. Dipping into the Sweetwater Reservoir, our crew will dump bucket after bucket, 320 gallons, more than a ton of water.
As skilled as our crew is, the question is, was the aerial assault strong enough and did it come soon enough? The National Guard told us Cal Fire, the state agency that handles all aerial assets in the wildfire, did not request additional resources until late Sunday. That's a full day after the first fire broke out. They arrived Monday.
Keeping them honest, we asked Cal Fire about the delay in getting aircraft up in the air. A spokesman told us the assets were there and the weather was the determining factor on when and how they were used.
Our pilot, Commander Lew Gray says timing of the aerial assault couldn't be helped.
KAYE (on camera): Would you say that the state has made good use of those who could be airborne to fight this?
COMMANDER LEW GRAY, NAVY PILOT: I think they have. I mean, I think the first day, the fire was going so fast there was really not that much that could be done from the air.
KAYE (voice-over): Still a spokesman for the U.S. Marines told us, it had offered up helicopters as early as Sunday, but they weren't called to fly until two days later.
We were prepared to conduct missions before that, the spokesman said, but we had not received any requests. Jeff Bowman used to be San Diego's fire chief.
JEFF BOWMAN, FMR. SAN DIEGO FIRE CHIEF: The federal assets that are staged around the United States, in my opinion, should have been moved to the West Coast.
Maybe they were, but I'm hearing they weren't, to be prepared for this, so that when the wind allowed them to fly they could have been here and flying. My understanding is some of them still are not here.
KAYE: Cal Fire says it typically has 23 air tankers, 11 helicopters, and 14 spider planes. With additions from state and federal agencies, it says it's now using 35 helicopters and 27 fixed- wing airplanes, weather permitting.
GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: We had 90 aircrafts here in California. We had six additional aircrafts from the federal government that can drop a huge load of water and chemicals and all those. But we could not use some of those equipment and some of those aircrafts because of the wind conditions. So that was our big disadvantage.
KAYE: Air crewman Douglas Kidd.
DOUGLAS KIDD, AIR CREWMAN: Everybody needs to understand that the people -- but you can't just throw assets out there. Everybody has to be trained. Everybody has to be in communication with each other.
KAYE (on camera): Even after lessons learned from the last massive fire here, the Cedar fire back in 2003, Cal Fire requires spotters in every aircraft because radio frequencies between the military and local agencies on the ground are incompatible, a key reason why many aircrafts may have been grounded.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They didn't have enough people allegedly to give to the military to go up and be the spotter.
KAYE: Lack of training may have caused further delay. Our pilot told us the Marines haven't trained with Cal Fire for water drops.
GRAY: The risk is that they're not going to do any good. They're going to get in an area where they don't need them, and they're not actually helping the people on the ground because the beautiful thing about having and mentioned back, is he's fought fires on the ground and he knows what they need.
KAYE: As each bucket filled and dropped on our mission, you couldn't help but wonder if we'd even be up here.
RON ROBERTS, SAN DIEGO COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISOR: Here, facing one of the greatest fires ever in the history of this state, we have military helicopters that we're sending the pilots into war, but we wouldn't allow them to go drop water on a fire.
KAYE: Had the response been more aggressive? (END VIDEOTAPE)
COOPER: Have they tried to address these problems before?
KAYE: They have, Anderson. After the big Cedar fire...
KAYE: ... the last massive fire here back in 2003. They had what's called the Blue Ribbon Commission, which made about 50 recommendations. It was actually the governor's commission.
And one of the things that they wanted to improve was this aerial assault. Well, not much changed, although the former fire chief of San Diego, who we did interview, he said he saw a few improvements. But the problem is money.
He was hired to make these improvements, improve the aerial assault among other things. He never got the money. He quit. Clearly, the problem is still out there. It's not like they didn't know this fire was coming.
COOPER: Right. We'll see if there's any change after this one.
Randi, we appreciate the reporting. Thanks.
We couldn't cover this story without the people of southern California. The images that we've been getting from our I-reporters are simply amazing. You're going to see what I mean when this special edition of "360°" returns. We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want the people to know that there's a better day ahead. That today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life's going to be better. And to the extent that the federal government can help you, we want to do so.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: President Bush today, we will be watching. Meantime, we continue to get I-reports from people all across this area. They're sending amazing photos, the flames and the destruction.
John (ph) submitted this photo of the Santiago fire. It was taken from his son's bedroom window Monday night. Imagine seeing that outside your window, the fire dangerously close to their house.
A border patrol agent sent in this photo. A trailer park burnt to the ground in Jamul, here in Jamul I should say, about the Harris fire. In the community of Foothill Ranch, earlier this week, fire crews lined up and marched out for duty. Thanks, Frank (ph) for this photo.
And in Canyon County, north of L.A., Eric (ph) took this picture. The mailbox says "Home sweet home." That is far from the truth today.
Thanks to all our I-reporters. If you got a photo or a comment to share, just go to CNN.com/360, click on the link to our blog.
Now, we want to check in again with CNN meteorologist Chad Myers for the latest on the conditions firefighters are facing tonight -- Chad.
CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, the winds are dying down, Anderson and that's great news for firefighters. But it's really bad news for people that have to live through this now because this smoke that's now in the ocean or over the ocean will be moving back onshore, and everybody's going to have to breathe this stuff.
So what can you do without going out and spending a bunch of money, what can you do? The cheapest way to actually clean some air, especially like in your bedroom, if you want to do this at night while you're sleeping.
Get a towel. Get it wet, not dripping wet but pretty wet. And then take a fan and blow the fan at the towel. You'll be amazed how dirty this towel gets. Now, as soon as the towel dries out, it's not doing anything so you have to keep the towel wet.
And then the smoke particles are actually attracted to that water and that at least would get some of it out of your air. So get it out of your throat because now we have these particles that are going to be up in Merced, going to be in Bakersfield, all of these smoke is going to translate itself inland, salt and sea, all the way Twenty- nine Palms.
And then later on in the week, Anderson, we got a little bit of a puff from the south and now it's all going to get up here into the valley. And air quality alerts for the valley right now, that includes not quite Sacramento, but just south of Sacramento all the way down to Bakersfield, the area is going to get up and over the mountain over the great vine and down into the valley. And then that smoke is not going to come out of that valley for a couple of days so you'll be breathing it there too.
So take care of yourself. It's kind of a health hazard at this point. The good news is at least the fires are going to be a little bit less vigorous with less wind.
Anderson, back to you.
COOPER: Chad Myers with a home remedy there. Chad, we'll check in with you. We have a two-hour addition of 360° starting at 10:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m. to midnight.
Up next, LARRY KING LIVE. Filling in for Larry tonight, Rick Sanchez. I'll see you at 10:00 p.m. Eastern.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com