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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Planet in Peril; California Burning: The Line of Fire

Aired October 23, 2007 - 23:00   ET

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


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: This is a special edition of 360. We're live outside San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. Thousands of people here tonight forced from their homes by wildfires now consuming hundreds of thousands of acres, all the way from Santa Barbara up north all the way down to the Mexican border -- 13 major fires, more than 1,200 homes already gone. Dozens injured, yet amazingly, only one death. Before it had been reported there were two deaths. That has been downgraded -- just one.
That said, nearly 1 million people are now on the move, either told to evacuate or leaving on their own, not knowing what they're going to come back to.

All this as once again today hot weather and hot, dry wind came together to create what some are calling hell on earth. It might get better tomorrow, and we'll get the latest on that shortly. But for now, this is about as bad as they've seen it in a lifetime here.

We have crews out all over the region. Tonight, we'll meet some of the brave men and women on the front lines, on the fire lines. We'll hear from the caregivers and aid workers, all the angles on this story tonight. We have found out all across southern California.

We begin with the big picture of what was another punishing day.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): The flames just keep coming. Dry air, high winds, hot weather, igniting a firestorm across southern California.

As destruction spreads, tensions flare up between a firefighter and a man refusing to leave his home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey! I told you to get out. You need to get out now! We got hoses up here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Put the fire out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You try to put it out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have been.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go! Let's go now!

COOPER: Governor Schwarzenegger calls it a tragedy and an unprecedented one. From the desert to the sea, up to Santa Barbara and down to the Mexican border, more than a dozen wildfires are still raging out of control, laying waste to thousands of homes and buildings, devouring a landscape more than half the size of Rhode Island. In Washington the president declared seven counties a state of emergency.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We send our prayers and thoughts with those who have been affected and we send the help of the federal government as well.

COOPER: Several of the wildfires are massive, three in the Los Angeles area and two in San Diego. Together they continue to incinerate, leaving neighborhoods charred and in ruins.

In San Diego nearly 1 million people have now fled their homes, a number unprecedented for any fire.

Evacuees from the flames, thousands jam into Qualcomm Stadium where beds and food await evacuees like Tammy McCall (ph).

TAMMY MCCALL (ph), EVACUEE: It's very scary. You never think that you're going to be in this kind of a position, but also, you know, it doesn't hit you until you're here with all these wonderful people that it actually happened.

COOPER: As people find shelter, so are animals saved from the flames and moved out of harm's way. Thousands of firefighters wage war against the blazes.

BRUCE CARTELLI, BATTALION CHIEF, SAN DIEGO FIRE DEPARTMENT: Utter devastation. Hundreds of homes that have been lost. Many hundred more that have been damaged.

COOPER: And the military stands ready for deployment. More than 500 Marines from Camp Pendleton, about 1,500 members of the California National Guard have been mobilized to help out, and 17,000 more are available to answer the call if it comes. National Guard help is also coming from states as far away as North Carolina.

How bad will it get? Right now nobody knows for sure. But that veteran firefighter puts it in perspective.

CARTELLI: It's probably the worst significant event in my career of 36 years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (on camera): At least 17 firefighters have been injured already. They are facing the worst of the worst right now -- multiple fire lines, shifting winds, harsh terrain. You name it, they are seeing it. This is the moment that they live for.

CNN's Rick Sanchez spent the day some of them battling the Harris fire near Jamul -- Rick.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I was just a moment ago, Anderson -- I was just a moment ago listening in to the CAL FIRE radios, and I heard the weather report, and I don't have good news.

What they're saying is that the winds are going to be picking up at 11:00 this time here in California. That's obviously a couple hours away on the East Coast. But it's obviously a serious situation here, if the winds pick up.

And I'll tell you why. You see the picture right there behind me. All right, let's go back to that ridge. You can actually even see some of the ash flying around us here. A lot of soot, a lot of ash. That ridge is key. Because the fire has now crossed that ridge.

How do I know? We just took a drive to the other side and looked at it from a place called Steel Canyon community at Steel Canyon High School.

Anderson, a little while ago you were describing just how many people have been evacuated and have left their homes. Well, that parking lot was jam packed with people from these communities here in Rancho San Diego, in parts of Steel Canyon and other communities here, what they call "Horse Country."

There are thousands of homes here, and now we're being told by CAL FIRE that they're concentrating on that Steel Canyon area because this fire has jumped the ridge, is, in fact, now on the other side and is threatening many of those homes.

They're cutting a buffer, one of those fire lines to see if they can stop the fire from getting there, but I'll tell you, it's going to get real iffy here in the next couple hours.

Now, earlier today we did have a chance to talk to some of the firefighters with CAL FIRE, and also talked to a resident.

Interesting story that she tells as well. Let's go to that now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ: This is the Harris fire. It's already consumed 70,000 acres. As you go up to the ridge line, you see that the fire's now going over the mountain. It's crossing the ridge. You can see some of the flames up there. And as you go with me in this direction, you see it doing the same thing right over there where some of those trees are.

The fear, obviously, is it will actually cross the ridge and hit some of these homes that are up there.

Let's go over here and talk to Captain Kant (ph). He's with the California forestry.

What's the concern as we look at this? And there we see the flames once again, that that fire is actually going to jump the ridge and probably burn some of those homes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you look down the highway here, you can see one of our fire ground commanders. He's, obviously, taking a look at that ridge line right now, assessing the danger to the house. He'll do a risk versus gain analysis of whether it would be a greater risk to our personnel and equipment to go in and attempt to save that house or that house is undefensible.

Another option that they have is to call in aerial support using our rotary-winged aircraft, our helicopters, to come in and do bucket drops to take some of the heat and steam out of that fire before it does reach those houses.

SANCHEZ: So you might be able to do some air drops and possibly save it. But it's too big a job, right? There's just too many homes that are in danger at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 70,000 acres at this time, 5 percent containment, one of over a dozen fires in southern California right now, limited resources and obviously adverse weather conditions. That literally is the recipe for a perfect firestorm.

SANCHEZ: We're told that most of the folks who live in this area -- this is called Rancho San Diego -- were given an evacuation order, but we're noticing that there's some movement here. We don't know if these folks are here -- maybe what they did is they just left their sprinklers on. See the sprinkler going on over there? What they're actually doing is they're watering their roof which is a common sight around here when you have fires so close to these homes.

We're going to go over there and see if the folks are there. Maybe they'll talk to us.

How long have you lived here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Seventeen years.

SANCHEZ: This has got to be so difficult for you. Have you ever gone through anything like this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. I mean, I've been in town with all the other big fires, but I've never seen one like this. I've never had to evacuate like this before, you know?

SANCHEZ: Are you scared?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not -- I just don't want to leave.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Rick, have you seen a lot of people are not leaving their homes?

SANCHEZ: Yes. It's surprising to see so many people who say, you know, I'm just -- I'm going to wait until the last minute. Firefighters don't want to hear that, but unfortunately that's the situation here.

In fact, just over my other shoulder, there's a family over here. They've -- they're just within a football field of that fire. They're sticking it out as well. But I notice all the lights are on. I don't think they're going to sleep, Anderson, at least not tonight.

COOPER: And they have their sprinklers going, no doubt.

Rick, we're going to continue to come back to you, watch that fire as it jumps over that hill.

There have been more than 8,000 wildfires in California this year. Now, the same goes for last year. Here's the raw data on that.

In 2006, more than 1,300 fires were caused by lightning strikes destroying more than 200,000 acres. But an overwhelming majority of the fires were started by people -- more than 6,800 affecting almost 490,000 acres.

Well, Rick said it, CAL FIRE expects the wind to kick up shortly. The question tonight, when will things improve? The answer has everything to do with the bigger weather picture.

Up next, Chad Myers' forecast, with homes and lives literally in the balance, when this special edition of 360, "In the Line of Fire" continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I stayed behind because we had lost a house in the Cedar fire. And the few possessions I was able to take from that house are here at this house. And I didn't want to lose those few possessions plus all the other memorabilia that we've accumulated since then.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So many people don't know at this hour what has happened to their homes here at Qualcomm Stadium. There are many people who just are waiting to hear word of what happened to their neighbors, to their friends, to their own homes.

It can happen just that fast. For the Witch Fire in and around Rancho Bernardo has truly lived up to its name. Captain Kurt Zinghan (ph) is with the California Department of Forestry Fire Protection, better known as CAL FIRE. He and his crews have been working tirelessly on the Witch fire. He joins us now.

Captain, 200,000 acres have been lost to the Witch fire so far. It's only 1 percent contained. How are your crews holding up?

CAPTAIN KURT ZINGHAN (ph), CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION: Well, the crews are -- right now the crews are rather fatigued right now because there is such a shortage of fire service personnel responding to the area that the crews are rather fatigued right now.

COOPER: How many people do you have fighting the fire? How many ideally would you need? ZINGHAN (ph): Well, approximately -- we have about 1,500 firefighters that are currently on this fire. I would like to have probably as close to, you know, up to about 2,000 firefighters would help out.

COOPER: And what is your greatest concern about this fire, about the Witch fire right now?

ZINGHAN (ph): Right now my greatest concern would be the winds, the east-driven winds that we've had over the last couple days are starting to die down. And an on-shore flow would push the fire and basically reverse the fire. And the fire would go the opposite direction and go into areas that have not burned yet.

COOPER: And how many homes at this point have been destroyed? How many are threatened?

ZINGHAN (ph): The count that we have right now for the homes that have been destroyed, we're looking at maybe -- the estimates I have currently -- we're looking at right around 500 homes that are -- that have been destroyed. And we would be looking at thousands of more homes that would be threatened if the on-shore winds come in and push the fire that is not contained yet in an opposite direction.

COOPER: And with something -- a fire this big, I mean, how do you prioritize? How do you decide how to start attacking it? I mean, where do you even begin?

ZINGHAN (ph): Well, what we do is we come up with a management cycle that we would have -- we have a set of priorities that we would do is first, life value first. Then our property values would be coming in to play there. And we'd find out the areas that are going to be affected, how fast we can get the resources in there, try to get in there and take quick action on it to try to change the outcome of the fire.

So it's a rather fluid dynamic situation, and we have to be one step ahead of it. And usually with a wind driven fire of a situation like this, that can be a difficult task for us to do.

COOPER: Yes, fluid and dynamic to say the least. Captain Zinghan (ph), appreciate your tame. Thank you, sir. Our best of luck to all your firefighters.

Let's get the latest now on the one factor that Captain Zinghan (ph) and everyone is watching for, the weather.

Last night CNN's Chad Myers predicted a rough day. It has been that and more. CAL FIRE predicts a windy night. Where it goes next is vital information. Chad has the details and joins us now from the Weather Center -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Anderson, this storm has one more puff. And I'll tell you exactly what that means.

Look at the sky, look at the haze here on our Google Earth from all the smoke in the sky across the valley today. High pressure across the plains and across the four corners will cause a Santa Ana event. And the high pressure puffs, it breeds during the day. The warm air in the mountains rises up, and then at night, it falls back down kind of like cool air coming out of your freezer. When it hits the ground, it goes out from the mountains and down through the valleys and through the Santa Ana Valley itself.

Here's the warm air rising during the day, and at night it's going to fall back down to the ground. And the air's going to go out, and this is the last puff it has right now.

One more puff tonight, it's going to push back down, kind of like stepping on a balloon and that balloon's going to push its winds through L.A., through San Diego, but this is it.

In fact, I can't even find winds right now any more than about 20 to 22 miles per hour. And Anderson, last night at this time we were talking 50; and Sunday night, we were talking 75. So they're going to get a handle on this storm -- this firestorm tomorrow.

COOPER: That is certainly great news. Everyone here will be happy to hear that.

Only one person has died in the fire so far. Dozens have been badly hurt.

Up next, Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the medical frontlines.

And later, what all of this looks like. Watching it unfold mile after mile from the air. Images you won't soon forget when our special coverage continues.

Also coming up at midnight Eastern, a special edition of "LARRY KING LIVE". We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN GRAPHIC)

An average of 1.2 million acres of U.S. woodland burn every year. That is approximately the size of Delaware.

Source: Weather.com

(END GRAPHIC)

COOPER: Here in San Diego County, at least 1,200 homes have been destroyed. One person has been killed. Several firefighters have also been badly injured. We know that at this hour. Some are being treated at the burn center at the University of California San Diego Medical Center.

Our Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta was the only television reporter allowed in the burn center today. He joins me now.

Sanjay, you just got back from the burn center. Tell us what happens there. What's the situation there?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, first of all, Anderson, this is the only sort of burn center for the entire county area. So all the burn patients from this entire area are at one point or another sort of funneled through this particular burn center.

It is crowded, as you might imagine. It is very busy. We got a chance to actually walk in with Dr. Koinbrau (ph), who is the chief of trauma over there and see many of the patients who are actually being cared for right now.

As you might imagine, it's a difficult process, Anderson. These patients are critically injured. They have terrible burns. Many of them are in critical condition still, requiring breathing tubes and it's going to be sort of a long process for them over the next several days.

You know, we've looked at so many of these images for so long. We had a chance to actually meet somebody who is most directly affected by this, an anguished mother of one of the firefighters. Her daughter is a firefighter. This is how she put it to me.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She told me that the -- she was in the truck when the fire overtook them and had to get out of the truck. So that's how -- with all their protective gear, everything was covered, but her face was exposed somewhat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GUPTA: She had a terrible burns over her face, Anderson. And this report, actually from some of the local media was that she had actually died as a result of those injuries. She has not, obviously. She is in this world-class burn center being treated right now. It is, like I said, a long process, lots of removing of the skin, lots of pain management, lots of medications to basically paralyze patients while they're on the breathing tube. And this is what's going to be in store for this particular woman, a firefighter for the next several days.

But they are being cared for, as we saw, Anderson, in a pretty full burn unit tonight.

COOPER: And these firefighters put their lives on the line every single day, especially in a fire like this which is moving so fast.

Sanjay, how do they prioritize, how do they figure out not only who gets treated first, but what aspect to treat?

GUPTA: Yes, you know, it's interesting. There's so many different things. If you think about the skin itself, it is really the largest organ in the body and something to keep in mind. And when it is so badly burned, there are patients in that unit that you just saw whose bodies -- over 60 percent of them are actually burned. They have to basically prioritize like they do with any trauma situation, the sickest obviously get taken care of first.

But there are simple, basic rules, Anderson. The airway can get swollen as a result of the smoke inhalation. So maintaining and securing that airway very early on is one of the key parts of this. The rest of the treatment over the next several days is maintaining fluids which can be lost so quickly in someone who's lost so much skin, and then slowly putting back skin, taking grafts from other parts of the body and making sure that all that skin gets covered once again.

COOPER: Such a difficult procedure.

Just a reminder, Sanjay, thanks. We're going to check in with you throughout this evening.

A reminder, a special edition of "LARRY KING LIVE" is coming up at midnight, Eastern time. We're also following several other stories tonight across the country.

Let's get a quick check with Gary Tuchman for a "360 News and Business Bulletin."

Gary, what's going on?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Anderson.

A picture-perfect launch for space shuttle "Discovery," heading to the International Space Station for what NASA calls the most complex construction project ever making room for new space laboratories.

A new warning today from Turkey's prime minister on the escalating crisis along the Turkish border with Iraq. He says Turkey won't wait forever for Iraq to clamp down on Kurdish PKK taking sanctuary in Iraq. The Kurds have been fighting for autonomy inside Turkey for decades.

On Wall Street stocks surge on upbeat earnings news. The Dow soared 109 points to finish at 13676. The NASDAQ gained 45. The S&P added 13, a good day for your stocks.

And in Las Vegas, two of O.J. Simpson's co-defendants pleaded guilty to reduced charges and agreed to testify against him Simpson on the more serious charges stemming from a bizarre alleged armed robbery in a Vegas hotel.

Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Gary, thanks.

Still ahead, San Diego's been hardest hit by the wildfires this week. Some are saying they could have been better prepared. We'll check out how. We're "Keeping them Honest."

And the sign says Shangri-La. It used to be a woman's home. We'll talk to her when this special edition of 360 continues. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Extraordinary live pictures there of the Harris fire which has just crossed a mountain ridge, something firefighters did not want to see. We are closely watching that fire.

Elsewhere in places where the flames have come and gone, it looks like a moonscape, but the moonscape used to be a front yard or a lawn or a backyard patio or the garage that held a kid's first bike.

CNN's John King is in Rancho Bernardo tonight where moonscape and memories are living side by side.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In San Diego's Rancho Bernardo neighborhood, the urgent goal now is to keep the flames from coming back.

The destruction is random. Many houses unscathed, others just steps away in ruins. The Da Silda family was evacuated at 4:00 a.m., Monday. Kyle Da Silda saw flames just down the street.

KYLE DA SILDA, EVACUATED SON: Opening the garage was like opening an oven. All this hot air and stuff just comes out at us.

KING: The wait to go back is nerve-racking.

NANCY DA SILDA, EVACUEE: We were told today that we could come back and get any medicine or important files we might have left behind if our houses are still standing.

So, we have been waiting in line, so that we can go back into the community. And, hopefully, our house is still there. Anxious and hopeful. I will be happy if it is still there, but I'm not expecting it. I know how fast and how hot the fire was when it was coming at us.

KING: Once cleared by police, the family piles into their pickup. Their joy at finding their house still standing tempered by the devastation the neighbors face.

GERALD DA SILDA, EVACUEE: Things will never go back to the same. When we were leaving in the morning, I just saw that hill back there just go on fire like water on -- oil on water. And I'm one of the ones that got lucky. We will just do whatever we can to help.

KING: Ten-year-old Tessa worries about her friend across the street and her pets.

TESSA DA SILDA, EVACUEE: I hope all of them are going to be OK. I'm kind of worried about my friend. My friend Anna (ph), she has her pets. She had to leave some of them behind, like their snake and their bird. They might be coming back in a little bit.

KING: The Da Sildas have smoke damage to deal with, but, if suppression efforts here go well, should be allowed back permanently soon, a blessing given the sight as they hurriedly drove away, Tessa remembering the moment as she records her family's good luck and the neighbors' misfortune.

T. DA SILDA: Well, like, at 5:00 a.m. in the morning, when we had to come down here, it looks like, up there on that hill, the fires, they were just coming down on us. There was a red glow in the sky. And then we came back and then there were 40-foot flames just streaming down that mountain.

I think that this is the scariest moment of my life. It was. But I think we're going to be OK.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: I think we're going to be OK.

John, when can families start coming back to Rancho Bernardo?

KING (on camera): Anderson, they don't know the answer. Increasingly, they are frustrated by that. Families lining up at the edge of the neighborhood at the police roadblocks -- roadblocks. They're only allowed in to get vital medicines, to get vital documents from their homes, then they're told they have to leave. And why? Well, simply put, the fire department is worried that the fire will come back.

Since we spoke a few hours ago, they've come back through these wrecked homes, the devastated homes and watered them down yet again. And you still see more smoke coming up. The ground is still very warm in some areas, the metal still hot.

They are concerned that the fire could come back in this neighborhood either from the embers of the homes that have already been destroyed or as if the winds shift, they worry the fire that blew through earlier could come back again. They say that is something that tends to happen with these fires. So for now the families have to wait. Their neighborhoods, whether their house is here or not, off limits -- Anderson.

COOPER: Well, a long wait, indeed. John, thanks.

As we've been reporting, the wildfires here in southern California have destroyed more than 1,200 homes so far. One of them belonged to Christie Williams. She and her family got out safely, thankfully yesterday. That is the good news. They then watched their house burn down on television while watching CNN and coverage of local stations. That is her house there.

She joins me now.

How are you holding up?

CHIRSTIE WILLIAMS, EVACUEE: You know what? We're OK. We're a strong family. We can get through this -- I think, I hope.

COOPER: You've got three kids and your husband. Did you see the flames coming?

WILLIAMS: No. No. Just from the Cedar fires, we know to get out before it gets bad. And we did. We've got, you know, three little kids. I can't afford to have them in a house if it goes up in flames.

COOPER: You actually saw it -- I mean, those pictures we've been showing, that's your house burning. You saw it on television.

WILLIAMS: Yes, we did. We sure did.

COOPER: That's got to be horrific. I mean...

WILLIAMS: It is. It's horrible because you don't know when you're sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to find out how your house is, and there it is on the news going down. It was -- it was surreal, I think is the right word.

COOPER: We've got pictures I believe now that you gave us of what the house looks like now.

WILLIAMS: Right.

COOPER: These are -- what is that?

WILLIAMS: It's a missile that was under the house when we bought it. I don't know why it was there, but was -- it's empty.

COOPER: And that's...

WILLIAMS: That's my home. That's the foundation there and the front porch and the living room. You can see my front patio chair there. That's my daughter's bike. That's her first bike. It's -- I guess she won't be riding that anytime soon.

COOPER: How were you able to get these pictures?

WILLIAMS: I have a friend who is -- works with the animal rescuing the animals, and he took them for me.

COOPER: What's that?

WILLIAMS: That's my husband's wood shop. You can see the CNC machine, and we had like a generator in there. A had a band saw, all of his tools, all of his wood tools, all of his metal tools. It was part of our barn. We had a big barn there, and he had the bottom story.

And my photography and all my photography equipment is in there.

COOPER: Does it feel -- does this feel real at this point?

WILLIAMS: Oh -- oh, no. No, no, it won't feel real till I'm there. I just want to go home. I see those pictures and I just want to go home. I want to take my hands and I just want to put them on what's left, just what's left of my house because that's still my house, you know? It's still -- it's still mine.

COOPER: Do you think you can rebuild?

WILLIAMS: Oh, we will rebuild.

COOPER: No doubt about it?

WILLIAMS: No doubt about it. It's still our Shangri-La. We still love it.

COOPER: Well, I wish you the best, you and your family.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you very much.

COOPER: Just stay strong. Stay strong.

WILLIAMS: We will. We will. Thank you.

COOPER: All right thank you. Right here.

Up next, what's happening in San Diego right now is very familiar to lots of people around the country.

Just four years ago, 22 people died and almost 3,000 homes burned here. So could the fire department have been more prepared for this new battle? Could more have been done? We're "Keeping them Honest," next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE TUTUNJIAN, EVACUEE: I've been in two wars, and leaving our house, it was like being in a war zone. Fires were engulfing all over around us. Houses I've looked at for 10 years have been engulfed -- engulfed in flames.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: There's a lot of emotion here tonight. As we hear the stories and look at the fires, a lot of very dedicated people are working the lines, trying to get a handle on them.

We've just seen some of them in the burn unit. They are doing great work.

The larger question, however, is this. Do local fire departments have the manpower to fight more and more of these large but predictable fires? Did they in San Diego? Were they ready? Sadly these are not new questions.

CNN's Joe Johns went looking for some answers. He's "Keeping them Honest," tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The scene is now all too familiar. Wildfires light up San Diego County; 22 people die; 3,600 homes burn.

But these scenes are from 2003, almost exactly four years ago.

San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter, who today is running for president, lost his home back then, and now, he says, he just got word work had been completed on his new how house, but there was a catch.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: So my wife last night told me she had good news and bad news. The good news was that we were going to be able to move in, and the bad news is we've just been evacuated again.

JOHNS: In fact, it's all happening again. "Keeping them Honest," we asked, did government officials learn anything from the fires here in 2003?

Back then, everyone agrees there were too few firefighters, too few trucks, and now according to a former San Diego fire chief, they still need 22 more fire stations and more than 300 new firefighters. But the city wouldn't do it.

A ballot measure to hike taxes for fire protection even failed.

Former San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman warned the department needed more resources before that 2003 fire. And when it didn't happen, the chief quit.

JEFF BOWMAN, FORMER SAN DIEGO FIRE CHIEF (on the phone): At one point yesterday the city of San Diego fire department had one fire unit, one single unit with four people on it protecting the entire city of San Diego.

JOHNS: Even so, virtually everyone we talked to, including Bowman himself, say the extra help and the extra money Bowman was asking for wouldn't have made a difference this time because of the enormous winds.

BOWMAN: You could have had a wall of firefighters standing there. Didn't matter how many you had. This fire was going to go where the wind pushed it.

JOHNS (on camera): As far as preparation goes, some new, less costly fixes have been put in place, such as a reverse 911 system that calls to warn people that their neighborhoods are being evacuated.

(voice-over): So it can't be said that folks there did nothing, nor can it be said that they did everything they could to avoid another disaster.

But then how much can you do in the middle of a firestorm?

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Certainly with a can be said right now is that the firefighters who are out there working the lines right now are doing everything they can to try to stop these blazes.

Up next, we're going to take you above the walls of fire for a look at the devastation and a battle to beat back the flames. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARTELLI: Utter devastation. Hundreds of homes that have been lost, many hundred more that have been damaged. And it's probably the worst significant event in my career of 36 years that I've ever experienced in my fire service career.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Tonight we want to take you literally above the flames to show you what the wildfires look like from the sky. It's a unique perspective of this historic disaster in the making.

CNN's John Zarrella was aboard a helicopter as it flew over the devastation near Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County.

Here's John's report.

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JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Only from up here, flying at 6,500 feet above the fires, can you begin -- just begin to get a sense of their breadth and their magnitude.

Below us, the Piru (ph) fire -- that's what this one is called. And they seem to be everywhere -- columns of wind-driven, supercharged flames driving down hillsides and across valleys, consuming everything in their path.

(on camera): Give us an idea and sense of what we're looking at right now. I know I see some flames in the distance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, what you're seeing in front of us here to the left is the Piru (ph) fire. The one north of us is the Ranch fire and we just flew over the Magic fire. And then off behind us is the Buckweed fire. Any one of those four would be a challenge for these -- for these local crews.

And you can see with so many burning at one time, the amount of smoke in the air and just the general scope of how far of an area they're fighting these fires, it is really stretching everything thin.

ZARRELLA: And you can see for miles and miles everything that's been burned out below us. It's just incredible.

You know, what do you think when you're up here and you see this and you fly this? What's going through your mind?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the first thing you're thinking about is the safety of the aircraft and staying out of the smoke and things like that, obviously. But as you look down, you can see the fire moving toward these homes, and you know that there are thousands of people being evacuated right now from their homes, and a lot of these are agricultural properties so you have livestock of different sorts. People are trying to move animals and grab their possessions. So while it can be beautiful and eerie from the air, it's just terrifying on the ground. And you know what when you're looking down and you can also see the scope of the damage, looking at it, the amount of burned- out vegetation for miles and miles.

ZARRELLA: You can see the smoke rising from those columns of flames, those pillars of smoke going up as the flames move through and consume acre upon acre of land.

In so many other natural disasters, whether they're hurricanes or earthquakes or tornadoes, you know that the victims usually have something they can go back to, something that's left behind. Not in these fires. They appear to be all consuming. Whatever they touch, they burn up and they burn up completely. There is very little left.

It makes you wonder what's going to stop them. Is there any way that they can be stopped, or are we just going to have to watch until they burn themselves out?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: John joins us tonight.

Have firefighters in L.A. County been able to get any of the fires under control?

ZARRELLA: Yes, Anderson, we just -- we're here at the command center and just talked with the fire officials here, and the Buckweed fire we talked about, about 80 percent contained now. They've got about 5.5 miles of fire break to finish constructing around that fire. They hope they'll keep that one contained.

That Ranch fire, about 93 percent contained now, and that includes that Piru (ph) fire that we showed most of those flames from.

So here amidst all that terrible news down where you are, a bit of good news here in L.A. County -- Anderson.

COOPER: That's good to hear. John, thanks.

What is ahead for southern California and the millions who have been affected by this catastrophe?

We're going to check in with CNN's severe weather expert, Chad Myers.

A short break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Breaking news, back to the Harris fire east of San Diego. Earlier Rick Sanchez reported the flames had jumped a ridge. He followed them to the other side of the mountain. We've just gotten the tape in. Take a look. These images, we are seeing them as you are seeing them. Take a look.

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SANCHEZ: We moved over to Steel Canyon. It's a community now on the other side of the ridge. Take a look at that. Look what's going on behind me.

Remember when we were looking at the ridge from the other side? Now we're over here, and as you can see, the fire has no doubt not only jumped the ridge, but it's doing quite a lot of damage on this side.

There's one of the big hot spots, but as you pan left, you continue to see that there's even more and even more, and it goes all the way across the ridge, all the way to the top. You see that now.

Now, as you go even over a little bit more, you see one of the few homes that still has the lights on. It's a rather large home. That home obviously is being threatened by this fire right now. So that's why CAL FIRE is out here now with some of their crews trying to cut a line, a fire line, a buffer, if you will, to keep the fire from going into all of these homes. Because underneath that lighted house, there are many more homes in this community here of Steel Canyon.

Now, keep going and we'll keep panning over that mountain ridge. You see that there's more fires and even more fires -- all of them on the top of the ridge. And Of course, the danger is -- and now we're hearing that the winds are going to be picking up and will continue moving down this side of the mountain and that's where it can destroy many of the homes here in this community of Steel Canyon, California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: We'll continue to follow the Harris fire.

"On the Radar," i-Report, images of the flames here in southern California.

We start off near Rancho Santa Margarita. A couple headed to Urvine. They tell us they were unaware they were driving into a wildfire until they saw other cars making u-turns. They snapped these pictures. It's quite amazing.

Now we'll look at the flames up close in Urvine. This snapshot from Bobby Holmes (ph) being threatened. The flame is very close to those homes. Look at the sparks in the air.

Brad and Joan (ph) in Oceanside, California, provided this photo. You can see the soot all over their Jeep Cherokee. Brad says it smells like fire and it's raining ash everywhere there. Chula Vista, California fires raging down Mount Miguel (ph) Mountain -- Mount Miguel (ph) Mountain. There Norman took this picture after he, his wife and their dog evacuated their townhouse.

Everywhere you look, there are fires.

And from Robert in Foothill (ph) Ranch, two firefighters facing the flames less than 100 feet away. Two of 500 heroes, Robert says, who made sure no homes were damaged in his neighborhood.

To share your comments or your photos, go to CNN.com/360 for the link to our blog.

We're going to continue to cover the fires from here in San Diego. And for the latest, be sure to catch "AMERICAN MORNING" tomorrow. John Roberts and Kiran Chetry will be here live beginning at 6:00 a.m., Eastern.

For our international viewers, "CNN TODAY" is coming up. Here in America, a special live edition of "LARRY KING" starts right now -- Larry.

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