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Firefighters Battle Raging New Mexico Wildfires; Red Cross Officer Discusses Mood of Evacuees

Aired May 11, 2000 - 8:01 a.m. ET

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

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We begin in northern New Mexico: Fire, tinder-dry conditions and powerful winds have created a disaster in the Land of Enchantment, as it's known. Flames are gobbling up acres and acres of land and anything in the way, mostly the city of Los Alamos. Evacuations have emptied the entire community. Many homes are reduced to ashes. The nearby towns of as Espanola and White Rock are also in evacuation mode.

Let's turn now to CNN's Greg LaMotte for the latest from Los Alamos -- Greg.

GREG LAMOTTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, 800 firefighters are battling a blaze that, for now, they can barely catch. The winds are gusting and whipping around in different directions so rapidly that some homes burned to the ground while one standing right next to them went unscathed. Embers are blowing, starting new fires as soon as the old ones are put out. As many as 100 homes have burned. The firefighters are working in neighborhoods where there are downed power lines. It is very dangerous.

As many as 18,000 people have been evacuated from their homes in three different communities, and they are angry. The fires that are burning their homes were the result of a controlled burn last week that raged out of control when the winds whipped up. Firefighters say they have no idea when and if they'll be able to put these fires out -- fires that could potentially threaten thousands of homes.

Fires were reported burning on the campus of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory. However, officials there say there is no cause for concern about radiation leaks. They say all the nuclear material is stored in underground cement bunkers that are fireproof.

State's governor and U.S. Senator Pete Domenici (ph) from New Mexico have received assurances the public has no cause for concern regarding radiation. But there is a huge amount of concern about what this fire is doing, has done and will do.

Wind gusts are expected today, making the situation completely unpredictable. The winds are gusting now with a huge amount of smoke and ash in the air. The situation is so dangerous, most of the firefighters have been forced to pull back and wait until the winds subside, when and if they do -- Leon.

HARRIS: Greg LaMotte reporting live this morning from Los Alamos, New Mexico -- Carol.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: New Mexico's Governor Gary Johnson declared a state of emergency four days ago. He called out the National Guard yesterday and has been closely monitoring the situation all week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. GARY JOHNSON (R), NEW MEXICO: This is really a bad situation. I mean, it couldn't be worse. This is -- Los Alamos is at the front end of the fire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LIN: With thousands evacuated already and more likely, coordination is vital. People need shelter, food, clothing. That responsibility falls frequently on the Red Cross.

Jo Anne Jones is a Red Cross officer coordinating care for evacuees right now, and she joined us on the telephone with an update.

Jo Anne, can you tell us how many people you're helping right now?

JO ANNE JONES, RED CROSS: Well, in the shelter -- I'm in the shelter in Santa Fe where we evacuated from White Rock last night, and we've had about 125 people in here in and out, and I'm not sure how many are here right now. The people here now are mostly all asleep.

LIN: And what did they tell you, Jo Anne. If you had a chance to talk to them, what did they tell you about the evacuation procedure? Did they get out pretty quickly? Did they have much time to gather their belongings?

JONES: They -- it was very orderly. We all -- we evacuated -- the whole town was evacuating at the same time. It was very orderly. The people have just been really very brave. But some of them had to evacuate, go into that one shelter, and then they've had to evacuate and come into this one. So they're very tired, but they've kept a good attitude about it.

LIN: Do you think it's -- that they really haven't had a chance to digest what's happened or how long it might be until they're able to go home?

JONES: Oh, I'm sure, I'm sure, yes.

LIN: Are you offering them some counseling?

JONES: Yes, absolutely. We've had -- we have mental health workers in here, and they have been all night. They were at the other shelter, too, and came down with them and definitely offering counseling. We have a doctor in here. We have health services people in here also.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Jo Anne Jones. Some 18,000 people in that area now evacuated.

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