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Suspicion, Sadness and Hope Tonight; On the Front Lines of the Disaster, A Day of Progress and Pain

Aired October 25, 2007 - 23:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening again from Southern California. Suspicion, sadness and hope tonight. The hope is on the fire lines. Crews making good progress. 13 fires, now 100 percent contained. The massive Witch Fire 20 percent contained, that's compared to 10 percent yesterday. The Harris Fire is not getting better but it's not getting any worse. It's holding at 10 percent containment. There is hope and there is suspicious as well. Big rewards now being offered.
A major investigation underway now into who set the Santiago Fire in Orange County. Well, the latest on that and other fires that authorities think may have been deliberately set. And we have hope too, in the sheer contrast between the response to this disaster and hurricane Katrina. The President was on the ground today. California's governor has been seemingly everywhere, but there's sadness and serious questions. Did tight federal money leave Southern California dangerously unprepared? We'll investigate that tonight. And there is sadness as well. Six new deaths reported since last night and thousands now discovering they have lost everything, even as their next door neighbors find their property virtually untouched. Ran done mercy a savagery as well on the street where they live.

All that and more in the hour ahead. Including a really wild ride on a Navy water dumping mission. It is rough and risky but vital. Tough question is, where they sent in too late into the area. Have too few of those vehicles. We're going to take and look at all of that but first let's look at the big picture, what happen today. Take a look.


COOPER: On the front lines of the disaster, a day of progress and pain. Chard in the ruins, much of Southern California is scorched to the ground, obliterated by the massive wildfires. Official suspect some were spark by down power line and accidentally by construction workers. Others were intentionally sad. Authorities have arrested at least five people on charges of arson but there had been no arrest in the investigation into the Santiago Fire. The case, however, is just getting started.

CHIP PRATHER, ORANGE COUNTY FIRE AUTHORITY: We have a number of leads to follow. This is a complex instant and we desperately want to catch the people or person that this. It is a confirmed arson.

COOPER: Meanwhile, death toll continues to climb. The bodies of two more people were found in a burnout home in San Diego and four more believed to be illegal immigrants were found burned in a Canyon East of San Diego. As for the battle, several wild fires 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 destroyed thousands of homes and buildings. In all, incinerating more than half a million acres. President Bush flew from Washington touring with Governor Schwarzenegger the devastation from above and on the ground. With lessons learned from the government failed response to Hurricane Katrina, the president promised immediate help.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: The first thing I want to let the people to know out here and Southern California's is that many across our nation have been moved by the plight of the citizens who have lost their homes, lost their possessions. It sure 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 evacuee have yet to run, some people are coming back and finding only memories await.



COOPER: It's hard to believe. More now the Santiago Fire where authorities say, it started as an arson. They believe it was started by an along an isolated road who knew his or her dirty business very well. The reward is now $250,000 for information leading to an arrest. John Zarrella has more.


JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The fire started here Sunday where the Santiago and Silverado Canyons meet. The burned-out land is now marked by crime scene tape. Federal, alcohol, tobacco, and fire arms agent say, spent today at the scene looking for more evidence. This they say is one of two places where the Santiago Canyon fire was set and there's no question investigators say, it was arson. Orange County fire officials who got to the scene on Sunday first say that within minutes, it had spread miles.

CHIP PRATHER, ORANGE COUNTY FIRE AUTHORITY: 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've 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.

MIKE THOMPSON, RESIDENT: I can't believe that anybody would actually do something like that to people they don't even know. If you want my true, true feelings, I'd like to have 15 minutes with the guy -- alone.

ZARRELLA: Others, like John Cunningham, are so angry, they don't even want to talk about it.

QUESTION: How do you feel, knowing now that somebody did this on purpose?

JOHN CUNNINGHAM, RESIDENT: I'm not even prepared to go there right now. So, bigger concerns right now. The family is safe. I believe the house is OK. And I believe that the 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.


COOPER: So, John, is there any link between the five people arrested and these major fires in Southern California?

ZARRELLA: Well, right now, authorities are saying they do not have any evidence of any link between the major fires and these five arrests. But, at least in a couple of a cases of those arrested, they were arrested in areas very close to where those major fires were set. Anderson?

COOPER: All right. We'll try to find out more about the investigation tomorrow. Joining us now is Richard Alarcon, former arson investigation for the city of orange, just north of here. Richard, thanks for joining us again tonight. Some investigators found two points of origin which apparently started the Santiago Fire. Once you know the point of origin, what do you do as an investigator?

RICHARD ALARCON, FORMER ARSON INVESTIGATOR: Once you find the area of origin, you go in and you look for devices something that may cause the fire, whether accidental or intentional. The investigators found devices in two different areas of origin. They collected the evidence. They'll process it for any evidentiary values that they can have that may lead back to a suspect. Then they'll put it out to the teams and follow up on it. One thing the fire authority did that was excellent. They got everybody involved right away in this investigation. All of the experts, ATF, FBI, California Fire, local fire investigators. They put all of the resources to use right away. And so, that really helped them out. Now what they need is the public. Somebody to come forward with some information that they may know about this fire.

COOPER: Well, in order to find the point of origin, do you need the witnesses? Or can you take a bird's eye view of the fire and kind of figure it out that way?

ALARCON: Well, investigators rely on the people -- the person that first reported the fire, what they saw -- they rely on fire -- the first in firefighters who arrive at the scene. What they saw burning when they got there. What wasn't burning? They'll ask them what they did to extinguish the fires. You know, what areas do they see? And they'll rely on that to start with. Once they do that, then they get in to those areas and start looking for the cause of the fire.

COOPER: With one of these fires, the investigators say the arsonist knew exactly what he or she was doing. So the fire was spread quickly or this person was just incredibly lucky. How would they be able to come to that conclusion? What would they be seeing in that?

ALARCON: Well, what they're looking for is the location. The fires were set in areas where they knew they would spread quickly. I would seem to think that this person whoever started the fire has done this before. This is not the first fire. They know how fire reacts and how it behaves. They use that to their advantage. They knew the winds were blowing. They use the dark of night to hide their crime. They were able to get in and out of the area because they knew the area.

Most arsonists plan out -- serial arsonist plan out what they're going to do. They're usually familiar with the location. They also like to stay around and watch what happens after they've set the fire. Even times, they document it with their pictures or video cameras. So, if anybody has talked to anybody that says they have pictures of the fire early on or have video of the fire, report that to investigators, that's important. Because, sometimes the arsonists like to stay around -- most of the time they like to stay around and watch the devastation they caused. They often do it in an area where they have an advantage and they can keep an eye on what they did.

COOPER: I talk to you about this last time but I want to talk about it again because I find it fascinating. What kind of person does this? What is the profile of an arsonist?

ALARCON: Again, the profile of a serial arsonist is usually a loner. They have low self-esteem. Usually, they have psychological or mental problems. They don't do well in social settings. So, the way they respond to that is by setting fires. They get the gratification they don't get from other people by setting these fires. Again, they usually start out small and they escalate to larger fires. They start off small, and they the gratification. When, that doesn't solve their needs, and then they start setting larger fires because that makes them feel better about what they've done. It's sick but that's how they let get off on this. They like setting things on fire. They usually escalate to a larger disaster like this. And probably not this person's first fire. Again, I think, they've done it before.

COOPER: Certainly, investigators will be looking for people with this on their record. Richard Alarcon, I appreciate your expertise. Thank you.

On the evacuation front, there was some confusion today. People in the city of San Diego were allowed back in an area like this. But homes on the outlying areas, San Diego County, they're still off limits. And as you can see, when they are allowed and a lot of the people are going to find that their homes are gone. The latest numbers are about 1600 homes have been destroyed and that number is going to rise. There are 23 fires now. Ten of them still not fully contained. Here's a look at the largest fires. Starting on the Mexican border, we have the Harris Fire, more than 80,000 acres burned, only 10 percent contained.

The damage, where I am tonight, was caused by the Witch Fire, massive. It spread, joined with the Pumacha Fire covering more than 230,000 acres. That's only 20 percent contained. As we mentioned up toward L.A. and Orange County, the Santiago Fire has burned more than 23,000 acres, 30 percent contained that one is. And the Ranch Fire, near Castaic has burned more than 55,000 acres and is just 70 percent contained. So, Arson or not, whatever the cause, what happens next, comes down to the weather. It's better tonight. It was better than it was from yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. The question is for how long. Let's check in for Chad Myers.


COOPER: Yikes, Chad, thanks. Four people died in this fire. Nobody knows their story. We have the latest on (INAUDIBLE), coming up next. Also, a day with people trying to stay hopeful, even as they see what is left of their homes.

And Later, Chad said that, the air here, it is not healthy. See, how people are trying to stay safe. And we're going to show you the best way of staying safe. Which of those masks actually work? All ahead on this special edition of 360.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, the way the wind is blowing right now, its barely missing, but they're big. I got to go. It's going to be a close call. Going be a close call. Oh, shoot. OK. This can be a very close call.


COOPER: We're found in a canyon not far from the Mexican border. The victims believed to be illegal immigrants. And in a separate location, fire crews found two charred bodies in the ruins of a house. Chief national correspondent, John King, joins us with more on these difficult stories.


JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And one of our crews, Anderson, got down to that canyon about 33 miles east of San Diego where they did found those four bodies badly charred but authority said, they're all but certain to be illegal immigrants. They stayed in that area, essentially a no man's land. Where there was migrant camp.

Of course, these are people, no matter what you think of illegal immigration. No reverse 911 calls. No way for authorities to tell them to evacuate. The medical examiner now has those bodies trying to identify them It could be impossible if they are illegal immigrants. Police was still on the scene, but they believe just four bodies at that site. And earlier today, as you notice, were at the site where there are two more bodies discovered. Police saying these steps they blame are simple stubbornness.


KING: 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. The view from the property is breathtaking, but if you look over the hills 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 over the hill and attacked the property.

The hill top house is destroyed. The melt of metal prove of the fire's intensity. It was midnight Monday, when neighbors pleaded with the man and woman to leave. Police first visit it Tuesday and a cursory search of the rubble turned up no human remains but the police return Wednesday after family members filed a missing persons report. It is down a hill a bit from the residence in this garage and workshop building where the bodies were discovered and taken away by the medical examiner.

15834 High Land Valley Road is in a remote area of Poway, just north of San Diego. The road in, it winds past down power lines and scorched fields. This 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 the precocious blades approach, a man and woman ignored pleas to leave.


COOPER: And that's the thing. I mean, they say, it's a mandatory evacuation. But it's under law, they can't force to leave their homes. KING: No, they can't. And the sheriff deputies came up today, to get us, to move out just before the family members came in to look at the site. And they say, from all of the reports, neighbors knocked on the door. They pleaded for these two to leave. It's a husband and wife. They have been identified tonight but they simply refused. They said, they were going to stay there. And it's hard anyway. Especially, hard in an area like that and there are many of them around this fire area. The remote area, you drive through. These winding roads, past the groves up into the hills, and so there's no police knocking on the doors. In a remote, rural area and these people stubbornly decided their going to stay.

COOPER: They paid a terrible price, John. I appreciate your reporting. Thank you. You might have noticed me coughing these past few days. A lot of us coughing, in fact. That's because the air here is thick, smoky, expert say downright dangerous. So, what can people do? We're going to show you next. These masks, which ones actually work? We'll be right back.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, it burnt everything. Oh, my god.


COOPER: Everything, just gone. Fire's not the only threat, of course. As we've been showing you the past couple of nights, there are serious health risks from what's being release in the air. You can be in danger even if you're far away from the flames. CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen shows what you can do for your own protection.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: 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 have them and finally we found masks at this Home Depot in Poway, a suburb in 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 Praiter 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?

KIM PRATHER, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO: I mean, you can see the soothing feeling. There's a gap all around the sides and so the air is 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. Now how about these?

So what about the end 95 masks, considered one of the best.

PRATHER: They have a little bit of ceiling on them, but really they still have the open gap.

Praiter 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.

They're too big on me. They're going to be way too big on a kid.

PRATHER: Right. And now, that is a problem. I mean, you have to think about. Who do you want to protect the most with this mask? And it's the elderly. People with respiratory problems and then kids. 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 is actually sealing much better.

COHEN: But even this one isn't perfect.

PRATHER: Not going to lock out the organic. These organic -- the other toxic vapors such formaldehyde, acrolyn, and things like carbon monoxide. The gases will not move at all.

COHEN: And you're data shows those gases are out there.

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 makes them feel better but masks that likely are not keeping out some of the most toxic stuff lingering in the air they breathe. Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Poway, California.


COOPER: The bottom line seems to be that something is better than nothing. But this flimsy kind of mask certainly are not very good. This is the m-95 that Elizabeth mentioned. It does have a little bit of a padding here. But not as much as the experts would like. But I guess, something is better than nothing.

We are following a number of other stories tonight. Gary Tucker joins us with a "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. The folks in favor of the so-called s-chip fall short of what's need to override a presidential veto. Earlier this month, President Bush vetoed a measure 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 involve in last week's attempt to kill her. Bhutto says, she 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 lay dying in a Paris tunnel a decade ago. The former volunteer firefighter telling a panel of investigator in the crash that Diana kept repeating, quote, "Oh, my god."

And stepping down, a Nobel prize-winning biologist whose comments about the intelligence of black people caused a global uproar. James Watson said, while he hopes, everyone is equal, quote, "People having to deal with black employees find it this not true". Watson now says, he's giving up his job at a renowned research laboratory on New York's Long Island. That's the news from here. Back to you, Anderson.

COOPER: Thanks for that. Up next on the special edition of 360. Fighting the fires from the air. Did the state wait too long to call the navy? A lot of disagreements on this issue. We'll keeping them honest, next.