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California Wildfires; Russia Investigation; Australian Arrested, Accused of Being North Korean Agent. Aired 2-2:30a ET

Aired December 29, 2017 - 02:00   ET



JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everybody. I'm John Vause in Los Angeles. Thanks for being with us. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


VAUSE: The Thomas wildfire has burned its way into California history. It's now the state's third largest on record and only 40 percent contained. The blaze has consumed almost 110,000 hectares and has burned for almost two weeks.

It's raging in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties just north of us here in Los Angeles. Thousands of people have had to evacuate, 12,000 more on Saturday in Santa Barbara alone. The fire has also caused the deaths of at least two people, a firefighter and a woman who died in a car accident while trying to flee.

Officials are urging residents to leave now while they still can.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I really want to emphasize, if people are in out this area, they really need to get out. They really need to get out for their own safety, for firefighters' safety. They need to let firefighters get in there and do their jobs.

Standing on your roof with a hose right now is not what we need. We need people just to get out of the way. And if you're in an area and if you feel uncomfortable right now, then please leave.


VAUSE: High winds have been a major problem for firefighters. CNN's Miguel Marquez has more now from the front lines in Santa Barbara.


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the fire that just will not quit. I want to show you what's hill just now. We're going to turn the light so you can see. You see the fires burning up in the foothills of Santa Barbara and Montecito. Firefighters have been working this area for over a week. The winds,

they were not cooperating with them at first. They were blowing it toward the ocean. They had those Santa Ana winds blowing the fire along with it. Then they had a let up for a couple days during the week. And they were able to let some burn out to get rid of the undergrowth.

But then the Santa Ana winds came back. Winds are topping out at 20, perhaps 30 miles per hour, though, I will tell you, we were up in those hills earlier. Not even that high and they are very steep. Get whipping 30 to 40 miles per hour in the ravines. No winds whatsoever, right now.

But if they can make it tonight, they believe they will be able to get on top of this Thomas Fire and finally put it out -- Miguel Marquez, CNN, Santa Barbara, California.


VAUSE: Earlier I spoke with Jay Smith, he's the public information officer with CAL FIRE.


JAY SMITH, CAL FIRE: Right now our biggest concern is that western front of the fire. You know, it's a (INAUDIBLE) populated areas and homes and (INAUDIBLE). So right now that's our biggest concern right now.

VAUSE: We heard earlier that essentially, because of those winds, at 65 mile per hour gusts, at 100 kilometer per hour gusts of wind it made parts of this fire was just unstoppable. And CAL FIRE made the decision, you weren't going to be put men in front of that to try and stop it because their lives would be in jeopardy.

Is that the situation that we have (INAUDIBLE) next couple of days?

SMITH: It is. So we're doing a combination basically of attacks on the fire. So where we can and when we can, we'll put crews going what we call direct, so right on the fire's edge, do a combat with the fire. And when we can't, we'll go indirect.

So we'll have crews and bulldozers cutting hand lines basically off the fire's edge and slowly allowing the fire to consume the fuel up to that fire's edge. But there are definitely times it does seem like it's out of control, yes.

VAUSE: That's a tactical technique known as fire front following when you're essentially allowed to burn through and then try and put out the hot spots once the fire's passed, right?

SMITH: Absolutely. So when we do get those 65 an hour mile winds coming, when that firewall is coming at you, it's like a freight train. So we're not going to put anybody in front of that. So that is one of our tactics, is the fire front following.

So once that fire blows by, then we'll bring the crews in right behind it (INAUDIBLE) hot spots.

VAUSE: Is there one particular reason why the fire has been so unpredictable and so especially dangerous over the last 24-48 hours?

SMITH: Well, (INAUDIBLE) it's a combination of things. So this area that we're in right now, the Santa Barbara-Ventura area, it has a lot of history of fires, pretty big fires. Where this fire is actually burning, there hasn't been a fire in this area in 50-plus years.


SMITH: So there's a lot of growth, a lot of fuel that feeds this fire on top of Santa Ana conditions. We had red flag warnings now for 12- plus days. It's been over 250 days since this area has had any measurable rain at all. And so it's just that perfect storm for one of these fires.


VAUSE: Jay Thomas (sic), speaking to me a little earlier about those wildfires just north of us here.

Much of a small Chilean village is under mud at this hour. This after a landslide tore through killing at least five people. Rescue crews in Villa Santa Lucia in Southern Chile are trying to find 15 people believed buried under the mud. The area has had unusually heavy rain, more than 11 centimeters in just 24 hours.

The already tense relations between the United States and China could soon be getting worse. According to the "Financial Times," on Monday, President Trump will label Beijing an adversary engaged in economic aggression against the U.S.

Trump is frustrated his personal relationship with China's president, Xi Jinping, has not led to a more balanced trade relationship or even significant progress in trying to rein in North Korea.

On the domestic front, the main issue right now at the White House in the Russia investigation concerns thousands of emails from the Trump transition team and how they ended up in the hands of the special counsel, Robert Mueller. CNN's Boris Sanchez explains.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: On Saturday, an attorney for the Trump transition team sent a letter to several committees on Congress, making the case that special counsel Robert Mueller obtained unauthorized access to tens of thousands of emails that were sent between Trump transition team officials.

They make the case that Robert Mueller obtained these emails from the General Services Administration, which supports transition teams with things like e-mail logistics and that he did not disclose that he had obtained them to those transition officials.

Further, that he used the information on those emails during interviews with those officials. Again, they're some tens of thousands of emails that are alleged to have been obtained by the special counsel.

There are -- they have been exchanged between some 13 Trump transition officials, including four top officials. CNN has reached out to the special counsel but they declined to comment on the story.

We also reached out to a representative of the General Services Administration but they could not be reached. This story just adds another layer on what has been a barrage of attacks on the special counsel from Republicans, some Republicans who are making the case that Robert Mueller should resign after news broke several days ago that there had been messages exchanged between top FBI officials back in 2016 during the campaign that were critical of then candidate Donald Trump.

Republicans made the case that those two officials, that had since been on the special counsel team, had tainted the investigation, so to speak. One of those officials actually left the special counsel before the text messages were revealed. One of them was reassigned shortly after those messages came to light.

But again, many Republicans are making the case that the messages reveal partisanship within the investigation and they've argued Robert Mueller should resign. Democrats in response have made the case that the special counsel is not partisan, that it remains politically independent, though they are speculating that the president is now planning to fire Robert Mueller.

Two Democrats, both on the House Intelligence Committee, made the case this weekend that that was the case; first, Adam Schiff, who was on Twitter, saying that he believed that the firing of Robert Mueller would happen before the end of the year.

The other, Jackie Speier, also made the case to a San Francisco TV station that Robert Mueller's firing was imminent.

CNN reached out to White House attorney Ty Cobb for a statement on these remarks and he gave us a statement, writing in part, quote, "As the White House has consistently said for months, there is no consideration of firing the special counsel."

So you have the White House denying that there is any kind of plan to remove Robert Mueller as the head of the special counsel. You have some Democrats that are saying that that is the case, that his firing is imminent. And then you have certain Republicans that are saying that the special counsel is tainted and that Robert Mueller should indeed resign.

A complicated situation and one that likely will receive greater focus because, as early as this week, you have a White House legal team meeting with Robert Mueller one on one, potentially to discuss the next steps in this investigation -- Boris Sanchez, CNN, at the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE) VAUSE: With regard to the transition --


VAUSE: -- team emails, we just received a response from the special counsel's office.

It says, "When we have obtained e-mails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner's consent or appropriate criminal process."

To Sydney now, where a 59-year-old man has been arrested and accused as working as an agent for North Korea. Federal police say the suspect brokered the sale of missiles and missile components on the international black market. And they add those components came from North Korea.

This is the first person to be arrested under Australia's new Weapons of Mass Destruction Act.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The AP conducted search warrant activity in Eastwood and we subsequently arrested a 59-year-old male person who is appearing before Perimeter Bail Court (ph) very shortly. We allege that male person was living in Australia to conduct illicit trade deals on behalf of North Korea. This is a breach of both United Nations and Australian economic sanctions against North Korea.

Now we'll be looking at this man who is a nationalized Australian, acted as an economic agent of North Korea and conducted prohibited financial activities, such as facilitating exports from North Korea in violation of both domestic and international sanctions.

We also uncovered allegations related to breaches of the Commonwealth Weapons of Mass Destruction Act. We'll be alleging in court this man was brokering the style of missile componentry and technical expertise from North Korea to other international entities.

We believe this man participated in discussions about the sale of missile componentry from North Korea to other entities abroad as another attempt to try and raise revenue for the government in North Korea.


VAUSE: Immigration rules and policies in Austria may soon be getting a lot tougher with the far right Freedom Party about to enter government. Under a coalition deal, the populist party was handed control of the defense, interior and foreign ministries in exchange for supporting Sebastian Kurz's conservative People's Party.

Kurz will be the new chancellor; the Freedom Party's Heinz Christian Strache will be his deputy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HEINZ CHRISTIAN STRACHE, DESIGNATED AUSTRIAN VICE-CHANCELLOR (through translator): We stand by the European Union and we stand by Europe's plan for peace. We have seen one or other positions developing and different positions which we will naturally value and also look for partners here and there. That is a part of the democratic gain and reality.

SEBASTIAN KURZ, DESIGNATED AUSTRIAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): We have a good, strong team. Concerning my part of the team, half of it will be women and two-thirds of the team are experts who will bring a lot of knowledge to the political leadership. And regarding Mr. Strache's (INAUDIBLE), his suggestions have been discussed here.


VAUSE: And Peru's president is staring down impeachment, refusing to resign after lawmakers voted on Friday to begin proceedings to remove him from office. President Pedro Pablo Kucyznski is accused of accepting more than $4 million in bribes from a Brazilian construction company.

Kucyznski says he's innocent and plans to ask the attorney general's office to publicly disclose his finances.

Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause. Stay with us. "MARKETPLACE AFRICA" is next.