Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Fires in Southern California

Aired October 23, 2007 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou.
Happening now, southern California caught in the drip (ph) of a fire disaster that is spreading by the minute. A half a million people forced from their homes at the mercy of raging flames, gusting winds and choking smoke. We'll have live reports from across the fire zone.

Plus, a reporter covering this inferno actually becomes part of the story. He stands by, helpless, watching his own house burn down.

And the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, now being tested by what he calls -- and I'm quoting now, "a perfect storm for fire". Tonight, his wife, Maria Shriver, on the challenges for her husband and Californians as huge parts of the state go up in flames.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It is an inferno that defies imagination. This hour the breaking news from southern California, fire now consuming now more than 350,000 acres. That's an area twice the size of New York City. Some people say they're literally surrounded with fires coming in their homes from all sides and gigantic smoke, plumes billowing just outside their windows. That's if their homes are still there.

Thirteen major fires are raging right now with San Diego taking some of the most devastating hits. Two people have been killed and 500,000 residents, that's half a million people, have been ordered to evacuate San Diego County. That's the biggest evacuation in the United States since Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Only moments ago, we got word of yet a new fire, the captain of the Los Angeles County Fire Department now reporting now that his units are responding to a blaze in action, about 27 miles north of Los Angeles.

According to earlier reports, several buildings are threatened and two to three acres are burning, fanned by heavy winds. More than half a million California residents, as I said, were ordered or urged to leave their homes, but not all of them are leaving willingly. Watch and listen to this dramatic scene as one man fights with a firefighter who makes him evacuate. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) fire out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You try to put it out. (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have been.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I need you to get out. Let's go. Now!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our affiliate KFMB says the man did leave and that his house was saved by the firefighters. In all, the San Diego Sheriff's Department says residents of 350,000 homes have been told to leave. Thousands of San Diego area evacuees are seeking shelter at the NFL football Chargers Qualcomm Stadium, many uncertain whether their homes are actually still standing.

Let's turn to CNN's Sean Callebs. He's outside the stadium. He's right on the scene for us. What's the latest? Set the scene for us, Sean, what's happening at this huge stadium.

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're exactly right, Wolf. You talked about the half a million people who have been ordered out of their homes. About 10,000 of those have been coming here to Qualcomm Stadium. Now outside the stadium, it's almost a carnival- like atmosphere. There's a lot of assistance, a lot of volunteers.

The people who have come here really there's no shortage of what they need, whether it be water, sunscreen, food. And right here, these are the people doing so much of the work. These are the volunteers that are coming through. They come right here to this board. They get their volunteer assignment.

And we're talking very plain duties on a lot of occasions-- picking up trash, taking food to people in the command center. But while it may have that atmosphere out here, we just came back from inside where people are basically stacked right next to each other on cots and there's a very different story going on in there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've been here since yesterday morning, about 8:00 in the morning.

CALLEBS: There's a lot of people out front listening to music, they're dancing, having a good time. You look beat. Has this been a good time for you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know I'm just tired, but we've been fine. We've been fine. Everyone has been more than friendly and more than helpful and just terrific.

CALLEBS: What do you do? How do you get through the next couple of days if, indeed, this goes on?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I mean, OK, so, I look really calm, but if you noticed, I'm wearing two different shoes, OK? So, yeah, I was calm evacuating the house, but exactly how calm it was, I don't think it was quite that calm.

CALLEBS: People are portraying this as just you know a bunch of multimillionaires who are just getting away from their homes, but these are real people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah, I think so. I mean, the multimillionaires aren't on cots at Qualcomm.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CALLEBS: Boy, that really says volumes and once again right here are the volunteers, let me chat with you for just a quick minute. I've seen you walk out here. What made you decide to come out and volunteer today? Why come here, when you could be doing so many different things today?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How can you not be here? That would be my question, actually, or my answer. How can you not be here? How can you not help your people?

CALLEBS: What is do it say about the people of San Diego? Because people in this line are being asked to pick up trash, hand out water, take food to people in the command center who have been working around the clock, very menial tasks, but you're up for that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. That is a duty. When he calls for help, it doesn't matter what you do, if you pick up the trash or you clean up. It's about being over here.

CALLEBS: What's it like when you walk through?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sad. It's really sad. But, you know, it's the spirit about being over here. That's why we have to just empower ourselves, be strong for others that have less right now, and just say, OK, we're here together.

CALLEBS: Let me ask you, the pictures you saw after Hurricane Katrina, you didn't want a repeat of that. Is that one of the reasons you came here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, because I really wanted to be there and I couldn't. So, this time it's happening here. I'm here for them. Thank you.

CALLEBS: Thank you very much. Now those are so many of the heroes out here on the front lines that are doing this work, helping the firefighters who are out on the lines. There is just so much going on, Wolf that it's really hard to even talk about in the very limited amount of time we have. Wolf?

BLITZER: Sean, thanks very much. Thank those volunteers for us as well. The California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, saying the winds, the heat, and the drought and are creating this so-called perfect storm for fire and the results are devastating. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: I mean I'm heartbroken to see these kinds of things because these are people that have saved their money for many, many years, and they finally got their home, they live in their homes and then all of a sudden you know from one hour to the next, these homes are destroyed. So I think that we have to do everything that we can to help these people on a state level, local level and also federal level to get them the money to get back on their feet as quickly as possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Governor Schwarzenegger spoke after touring the damage in the Lake Arrowhead area. We'll be speaking with his wife, Maria Shriver. That's coming up shortly.

Not everyone is following the evacuation orders. Our affiliate KFMB talked to one man who lost his last home in the devastating Cedar fire four years ago. He's staying behind, determined not to go through that again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You've been out here all night, fighting these fires basically, huh?

MICHAEL LUSTAG, FIRE VICTIM: Well I live across the canyon. And although I caught hell from my wife for staying behind, she left with our four young kids and is staying in a hotel down in the city, San Diego. And 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.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It's certainly a risky move, staying behind, especially when there are mandatory evacuations in place.

LUSTAG: I had packed up what I could in my car and if got too risky, I was planning on leaving. But we have a lot of defensible space from a fire standpoint around our house. And this was verified by a fire captain, who came and did a survey and looked over our house. So, I didn't feel like we were in -- like I was in great risk.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: These are live pictures of this new fire that we're just getting in, courtesy of affiliate KCAL in Castaic, California. You can see these flames, such a prominent picture. And it's happening all over southern California and areas as far north as close to Santa Barbara, all the way south to the Mexican border.

And even as troops responded to California's fire emergency, evacuations are under way at a U.S. Marine Corps base. Three thousand Marines are now leaving the infantry school at Camp Pendleton in southern California. A couple of fires on the base are reported burning right now. And take a look at this picture.

A massive towering smoke cloud, beneath it, disaster. This cloud is well to the east of Los Angeles, where firefighters are struggling to save the mountain community of Running Springs (ph). In that small community alone, forestry officials say at least 100 homes, at least 100 homes, have been lost and more are ablaze. Governor Schwarzenegger surveyed the disaster from the air today, flying over some of the hardest hit areas. Let's go right to CNN's Ted Rowlands. He joined the governor on this fly over. All right, tell our viewers what you saw and how the governor reacted, Ted.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I've got to tell you, it is amazing when you are up in the air for an extended period of time in southern California. We flew with Governor Schwarzenegger in a Blackhawk helicopter. We caught up with the governor in Lake Arrowhead where, as you mentioned, hundred-plus homes have already been torched that the flames are raging there and then flew all the way down to San Diego and just about five minutes of that time, you couldn't see smoke.

The rest of the state of California, at least the southern half, is covered in smoke and it is truly amazing to see the amount of smoke that these fires have generated, and to look out and see all of the different fires. Governor Schwarzenegger said he wanted to see it from the air. He has been to San Diego. He's been to Arrowhead and to Los Angeles. He says he is going to be on the ground, managing this from the scene because he wants to make sure everything is dealt with.

Katrina, obviously, is on everybody's mind. We're at a football stadium full of evacuees and the irony, obviously, isn't missed out. We also talked to Secretary Michael Chertoff, homeland secretary. He was in town, met with Schwarzenegger. Here is what he said about the lessons of Katrina.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: It's phenomenally better because we have been planning and preparing and training together for the last two and a half years so that unlike in Katrina when the Department of Defense and our department were essentially trying to figure out what kind of process to get underway for the first time, we have now built the process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROWLANDS: Obviously, Wolf, the fire is generating a lot of victims here. People have lost their homes. The aftermath is already in the forethought of politicians across the country, the federal government, state government, Governor Schwarzenegger, included. They want to make sure there are no mistakes and when there's a problem they want to deal with it. And it seems like they have the resources on the ground to do just that so far. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Ted. Thanks very much -- Ted Rowlands on the scene for us. Satellite videos drive home just how fast the flames are whipping across southern California. Look at these images of the area around Los Angeles, first at 2:25 p.m. Eastern Time on Sunday afternoon, you can see a trace of smoke across the water. But just three hours later, check this out, you can see the smoke is much, much thicker. Only a three-hour change and those pictures dramatize what's going on.

This satellite photo taken yesterday shows how desert winds blew smoke and sand from the Mexico's Baja Peninsula over the Gulf of California to the east over to the Pacific Ocean to the west. If you would like, by the way, to catch continuing coverage of the California fires from your own laptop computer, you can check out our online network coverage on CNN.com/live. You can also send us an I-Report or see other reports. You can always do that simply by going to CNN.com.

Jack Cafferty is joining us with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well here we go again. Now the White House wants to give Mexico $1.4 billion to help its fight against the drug cartels, Mexico's drug problem. U.S. assistance will include equipment, training Mexican troops, surveillance planes, helicopters, x-ray machines, yada, yada, yada, will not include any U.S. troops.

White House also wants an additional $50 million to give to several Central American countries. Yesterday we told you there isn't enough money to help poor people in this country heat their homes for this winter. Before that, President Bush vetoed a bill to expand health insurance for children in this country, too expensive he said, can't afford it. But he wants to give $1.5 billion to the Mexicans for their war on drugs.

One of the reasons cited is that some drug related crime has spread across the Mexican border into the United States. Go figure. There's a 2,200-mile border between these two countries that is virtually wide open. Oh and I guess we've already won the war on drugs here in the United States, right? No drug-related crime here and of course, the people who are watching their homes burn to the ground in southern California, they're not going to need any help either, right? This is a joke, $1.5 billion for Mexico?

Here is the question. Does it make sense for the U.S. to commit almost $1.5 billion to fighting Mexico's drug war when we haven't bothered to secure the border? E-mail us at CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you. We'll get back to you shortly.

A reporter documents his personal disaster, covering the inferno in southern California. He finds his own house going up in flames. Beyond the flames, choking smoke, dust, poisonous gases, those who haven't fled are urged to stay indoors. Is there any relief in sight? And she says the inferno is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's biggest crisis. My interview with California's first lady, Maria Shriver, that's coming up. She'll tell us what you can do to help.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're just getting this video in. Check this out. These firefighters, doing enormous, enormous work to try to deal with these flames that are getting ominously close, not only to homes, but to themselves as they -- and I want you to watch this, as we see this one firefighter deal with an enormous amount of flames, getting very, very close to himself as well as to a home that's right behind him. They're trying to stop these flames from getting any closer. This is a tough, tough assignment and extremely dangerous, as you can see.

Because those flames -- you never know when a gust of wind could simply expand that flame going all the way there and it's very close to that house right there. Those flames perilously close and what stands in the way of that one firefighter doing his best to keep those flames away. We'll stay on top of these pictures, update you on what happened to that home.

Tonight thousands of people still don't know if their homes are standing, but Larry Himmel does know. He's a reporter while covering the fires near San Diego yesterday afternoon, he discovered his own house was burning to the ground. Take a look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY HIMMEL, KFMB REPORTER: On any given day I would say welcome to my home, but this is what is left of my home just outside the forest ranch area. Fire crews have fought valiantly to save every house on this hill. At least took a shot at it and were nice enough to let us up here. That was our garage, the living room over there. There was a porch. Back there, the bedrooms. No pets left behind, family out, cars out, safe. But you can see my hose right here valiantly trying to do something, but this is it. It is a Southwestern-style house. I've been in it about 25 years, out here when there was nothing. We did clear brush. We did what we could. This was a living hell, coming over the hill. This is what I come home to today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And there's nothing left of Larry Himmel's home except that rubble. By the way, he is going to be joining Anderson Cooper during the next hour of CNN's live coverage. All across southern California you can't escape the choking smoke, the bad air that's billowing out from these fires. The health threat is urgent and it extends well beyond the fire lines.

CNN's Dan Simon found that out firsthand. He is covering this inferno for us. You're in Rancho Bernardo and you have been having your own trouble simply breathing at times, haven't you, Dan?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I've been covering this story since Sunday. I was up in Malibu and really, for all of the crews that have been covering this wildfire, yeah, it gets to you after a while. It's a little bit better now. I can tell you, where we are, basically because firefighters have been putting out all the various spot fires that they've seen in the ruins here.

Let me tell you something, Wolf. For the first time this afternoon, we actually saw people come back into the neighborhood. There actually is a condition, though. You need to tell the police officers who are monitoring the situation that you have to get your prescription medicine and they allow you to come in with an escort. We talked to one such individual, who found out that his home was OK and he got very emotional. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE TUTUNJIAN, EVACUEE: I've been in two wars and in leaving our house it was like being in a war zone. Fires were engulfing all over around us; houses that I've looked at for 10 years have been (INAUDIBLE) engulfed -- engulfed in flames. As we were leaving, we had about 10 minutes to get my family out, my daughter, my wife and the animals. And there was no time to think of anything except getting out of there. And it was only a moment ago that we realized how fortunate we are to be alive.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON: Yeah, that gentleman was fortunate, but obviously the person who lives here or the family who lives here, not so fortunate. Chances are that people who lost homes in this neighborhood still don't know it yet. Because like I said, in order to come back here, you need to tell the police officers that it's a medical emergency, basically, that you need to get your prescription medicine. As we look at the elements here, Wolf, you might notice that it's relatively calm. Not much in the way of wind. In fact, it's a pretty nice afternoon where we are, but not so in much of San Diego County, some 5,000 homes still at risk, the fire still burning out of control, Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Simon on the scene for us. Thank you, Dan. The first lady of California, Maria Shriver, she's going to be joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM and talk about the disaster her state and her husband are facing.

Plus, our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he is in the fire zone tonight. He is going to be joining us live from a burn victim center. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The latest flames, the latest fires in Castaic, California. You can see that wall of flames simply moving and moving and moving, the winds fanning those flames really at this point no, no end in sight. These are about 35 miles or so from Los Angeles. We'll get back to the fires in a moment.

But Carol Costello is monitoring some other stories coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What's going on, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: A couple of things, Wolf. Space shuttle Discovery on its way right now to the international space station, the late morning launch went off without a hitch despite some weather concerns. Discovery is delivering a module to give the space station extra room to accommodate new laboratories. (INAUDIBLE) mission is being called the most complex since NASA started work on the space station.

Congressman Pete Stark is now apologizing for comments about President Bush and the Iraq war. The California Democrat said last week that Mr. Bush was sending young people to Iraq to quote, "to get their head's blown off for the president's amusement."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PETE STARK (D), CALIFORNIA: I want to apologize to my -- first of all, my colleagues, many of whom I have offended, to the president, his family, to the troops that may have found in my remarks, as were suggested in the motion that we just voted on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: And Stark is referring to a censure vote against him that preceded his apology. It failed to pass.

The so-called "preppy killer" back in trouble with the law, Robert Chambers, Jr. arrested in New York City for selling cocaine. Chambers served 15 years in prison for the 1986 killing of Jennifer Levin, a death he claims happened accidentally during what he called rough sex. He could get up to 30 years on the new drug charges.

That's a look at the headlines right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Carol, very much.

She says it is the biggest crisis since her husband has been governor. Tonight the California first lady, Maria Shriver, on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's response to the inferno and whether the Bush administration is doing enough to help.

Plus all that smoke is now threatening the lungs and the health of so many Californians. Will the winds and the danger die down any time soon? We're going to check the forecast.

And you'll get the full scope of this fiery nightmare from the air. We're going to give you a helicopter view of homes as they turn to ashes.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And you're looking at these live pictures from Castaic, California. It is about 30 or 35 miles from Los Angeles. These flames are heating up right now and they are threatening more and more homes in the area. Half a million people in southern California have already been evacuated. More than 1,000 homes have already been burnt to the ground. We're also just getting word that some of the flames from one of the San Diego area fires are now very close to jumping a critical hillside ridge and it's now threatening homes in the Rancho San Diego neighborhood. That's where CNN's Rick Sanchez is joining us.

Rick, set the scene for us. Tell us what you're seeing, what you're watching right now.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm standing in what firefighters call a bowl. It's a concave area surrounded by two hillsides. I look left and I see nothing but smoldering from the fire as it has burnt through. As I look to my right, though, I actually see the fire that's now, just as you described to the viewers, potentially going over that ridge. From time to time, you see big billows of smoke and flames coming out.

What the danger, of course, is that on the other side of that ridge is the community you just described. That's Rancho San Diego. And firefighters are setting up strike forces there to try to make sure that they can try and keep those flames at bay.

Although, you know, it's a tough job for them. We've been watching as they do air drops to try to stop the flames from coming over. But as we're looking at it now, talking to the commanders and some of the captains here who are watching it with us, they're very concerned that it's going to go over.

This is, by the way, the Harris fire for those that have been following at home. The Harris fire is just southeast of San Diego. And we are now on the southern edge of the Harris fire. It's a real precarious situation.

You feel bad for these folks. I just talk to one of the homeowners here. I said you know you probably should leave. She says I can't and then she started crying and describing to me how difficult that decision is. She said I've been here 17 years. I don't want to leave my animals. And you a lot of decisions, a lot of tough decisions being made by some of these folks here as you watch this unbelievable story unfold, Wolf.

BLITZER: How many homes where you are in this Rancho San Diego area would you estimate are in danger right now?

SANCHEZ: There's a couple thousand homes in the Rancho San Diego area. And they're usually spread out. It looks more like a ranch community. A lot of them have acres, a lot of them have horse ...

BLITZER: I think we just lost Rick Sanchez. He was on the phone. We're going to try to reconnect, reestablish. But clearly, communications a problem where he is. Rick Sanchez on the scene for us.

Weather specifically wind, is a key factor in this disaster. Let's go right to our meteorologist and severe weather expert, Chad Myers. He is watching all of this unfold.

First of all, is there any sign at all that these people in California are about to get a break?

CHAD MYERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Yes. But a Santa Ana wind, Wolf, is a fire-breathing dragon. It breathes in and it breathes out. We finally at 3:00 had our high-wind warnings canceled. They finally expired at 3:00. Now we're still wind advisory, but that's one level down. Wind gusts only to 50 miles per hour, not 70 and not 100 like we had on Sunday night.

Here is a couple of live wind results here; Lake Arrowhead at 19 miles per hour, Running Springs at 17 miles per hour. You can still see from the NASA satellite, you can see see the smoke being blown offshore.

What happens in a Santa Ana event? During the day, the desert heats up and that becomes a little bit of a lower pressure, because the air rises away from the atmosphere. It rises away from the ground. At night, that air all comes back down, like stepping on a balloon and that balloon gets squashed in the desert and the air goes back out.

So, we do expect things to pick up again tonight. Not to 75, but still to 50. See all this red, that's 30 and above. That's all the way from Riverside right on down here to Rancho San Diego, right there where our Rick Sanchez was.

It calms down tomorrow. The colors go away a little bit. But then tomorrow night, Wolf, again, another breath out of the dragon and more 30-mile-per-hour winds in this same spot and that's where we go. It goes up and it goes down. The best time to fight the fire is actually about 9:00, 10:00 in the morning.

BLITZER: I wish these people could get a break out there. All right. Thanks, Chad. We'll stay in touch with you.

President Bush today, authorized federal aid to seven counties declared emergency areas by the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who certainly has his hands full.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

And joining us now, the first lady of California, Maria Shriver. Thanks, Maria, very much for coming in.

I call you Maria, because I've known you for a long time. We go way back to when you were working for NBC News. Let's talk a little bit about these fires. Is this the worst crisis your husband, the governor, has faced since taking office?

MARIA SHRIVER, CALIFORNIA FIRST LADY: It is, certainly, the biggest crisis on his watch. And I think he's handled it so far beautifully. He's there. He's in command. He spent the night in San Diego last night. This is day three of the fires, as you know. It started in Malibu and it's just grown and grown, obviously. The winds affect it dramatically. But we have the best firefighters, I think, in the nation. Neighboring states have deployed equipment and firefighters. So, we're getting people out. So far, there hasn't been a major loss of life. We've only lost one person, which is still a tragedy. But things could obviously be much worse. But we have lost hundreds of homes and thousands more are threatened. So, this is a minute by minute situation.

BLITZER: Are you getting the help from the federal government that you need? Hundreds of thousands of evacuees, these are the most evacuees since hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And we see the pictures over Qualcomm Stadium, what's happening to San Diego. Is FEMA stepping up to the plate, the federal government coming to your assistance?

SHRIVER: Well, my husband spoke a couple of times yesterday to the president and he told me that he had been very solicitous and said anything you need, we will make it available. Secretary Chertoff flew out here last night. He is on the ground today. We've gotten some help from the marines at Camp Pendleton. San Diego is a marine community, as you know.

So, so far the federal government has stepped up and I think they'll be asked to step up in many ways. They've declared the state a disaster and as you know, that helps with FEMA after the fact. But right now, we have to focus on evacuating people, making sure they're taken care of in those locations. As you mentioned, there are thousands and thousands of people. As you well know, you can be prepared and then this happens and things go right, some things go wrong and you have to be willing to adjust on a minute by minute base. People are sick. They don't have medication. They have animals. They have small children. All kinds of things happen in a situation like this. This is where leadership comes in.

BLITZER: Our hearts go out. People all over the country are responding. Is there anything special that people who are watching right now, Maria, can do to help those in need right now in California?

SHRIVER: Well, I think, Wolf, certainly organizations like the American Red Cross, different church groups, they need money. That's the quickest, easiest way to help right now. Because as you mentioned, several hundred thousand people have been evacuated. There are thousands of people without any lodging. So these evacuation centers need money. They need food. They need cots. They need blankets. They need to help people rebuild their lives. But I think the best way right now is to send donations. You can earmark them in some instances for victims of the southern California wildfires. Organizations like Save the Children are on the ground. Go to Californiavolunteers.org, which is directing people to ways that they can be of assistance.

We're asking Californians who don't need to be on the road to stay off of the road, to limit their cell phone use so that those who are actually working the fires can use the lines that they need. We're also talking to elderly people to not go out because the air quality, obviously, is bad. I'm also asking Californians to reach out and connect with their neighbors. Find out if you know people in the area that have been affected. Check on them. Have neighbors check on them. I often talk about the power of we in the state. We're 38 million strong and there's something all of us could do to help our fellow Californians who are in crisis.

And this is going to be a long road. You know, everybody is focused on this story today, but this is going to be a story that will be unfolding the rest of the week, the rest of the month and for months and months and even years to come.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And Maria Shriver, speaking with me earlier. By the way, since that interview when we taped it, two people are now confirmed dead in California as a result of these fires.

If you would like to help victims of the wildfire ravaging southern California, you certainly can through our impact your world initiative. Just go to CNN.com/impact. You can take action right now.

Hollywood shows and celebrities are at risk as well from these California fires. The TV hit "24" was forced to cancel filming at the Marine Corps air station in Irvine. The bed and breakfast owned by reality show star Tori Spelling was evacuated along with the entire town of Fallbrook. The blaze in Malibu forced actors Mel Gibson and Victoria Principal to evacuate their homes. Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston and Sting also have homes there as well. And the film and music mogul, David Geffen has an inn on Malibu Beach. He's opened it to firefighters and rescue workers trying to help out as well.

We're going to put you in the skies over this monster fire in southern California where airborne firefighters are racing against time, trying desperately to save a group of homes in a mountain community as the inferno closes in. And as casualties mount against the fight against the fires, our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes you to a burn center.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is over at the Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. He is going to become the first network correspondent to get a rare glimpse of this overflowing burn center at the University of California at San Diego.

Sanjay, give us a little sense of what you're seeing and what you're about to see.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is obviously Qualcomm area over here. You can see a lot of people in this area trying to find homes here. A lot of media, obviously, in this area as well.

Just in the air, Wolf, you see this particulate matter sort of floating down. As we were flying in from New York, I could certainly see it in the air and the fires burning. Over here, it doesn't seem that bad. A lot of people just wearing masks though, wearing those masks to try and keep at least the big particles out of their sinuses, out of their nose. They're not so good for getting some of the small particulate matter which can be the most cumbersome and dangerous in the long term. It doesn't work so well for that. But that's a lot of what we're just seeing around here, Wolf.

BLITZER: There's a lot of people who have certain ailments who should simply leave, given the potential dangers. Isn't that right, Sanjay?

GUPTA: Yes. You know, you're absolutely right. There are certainly people who are going to be at biggest risk for that. And as much as we talk about the fires themselves, Wolf, the smoke in the air can be a real problem. Does smoke inhalation injuries are a bigger concern after -- I just talked to some of the doctors at the burn center. They say it increases the likelihood of mortality by about 50 percent, just having significant inhalation injuries as well. People with cardiac problems, heart problems, people with lung problems such as asthma and emphysema are particularly at risk. But the types of injuries they're seeing are cardiopulmonary problems in addition to the burns, in addition to just lacerations from people trying to evacuate, Wolf.

BLITZER: The whole notion of this burn center you're going to, are we getting initial reports that there have been a lot of burns as a result of these fires? We know two individuals, two people are confirmed dead.

GUPTA: We do know that. I've just gotten off the phone with the folks at the burn center as well. We're going to be going there just after this, Wolf.

Here's what we know is that the first patient sort of came in on Sunday afternoon around 1:00. Then around 13 patients subsequently came in that day. There are five patients that came in the day after. And then one patient so far today. So, the numbers are certainly slowing down.

Out of those patients, we also know that nine are in critical condition. At least a few of them are firefighters, Wolf. At least one of these patients has burns over 60 percent of their body. This is obviously a huge percentage of their body. One formula that they talk about is actually taking the percentage burn, in this case, 60 percent, adding it to someone's age and you get a sense of the likelihood of mortality, of someone actually dying from this.

Burn care is obviously much better today than it was a few years ago. But these are significant injuries. And you did mention that two people have died as a result.

BLITZER: Sanjay Gupta, not only a world class journalist, but an excellent neurosurgeon and doing what he does best, even though it's your birthday today. Sanjay, I know you could be celebrating someplace else. You want to be on the story, like any good journalist should be on the story. Happy birthday. GUPTA: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Happy birthday, Sanjay.

GUPTA: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: We appreciate what you're doing and our viewers do, of course, as well.

Federal authorities say they've learned lessons from the failed response to Hurricane Katrina and they also say they have acted quickly to help deal with the California fires, moving emergency materials into the area.

The FEMA Chief, David Paulson, and the Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, flew to California to get a firsthand look, including a visit to the evacuation center at the Qualcomm Stadium. President Bush, by the way, will get his own firsthand look at the fire devastation. He's going to be traveling to southern California on Thursday. He will be briefed on the situation tomorrow by his homeland security secretary and the FEMA agency. They, as you know, visited the fire zone earlier today. And they're on the scene right now.

Half a million people forced to flee 350,000 homes. Those are the numbers right now.

Let's get a closer look at what that means, what's burning right now and where. Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tom, explain the enormity of this crisis.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well you know, it's an easy thing if you don't live out west to wonder how all this is happening. Well, look at the size of this, first. This is an enormous area. This is how the smoke looked on Monday. And this is how it looks today, going more than 500 miles out to sea, coming from a span of about 150 miles across here.

But what's burning in this area? We want to talk about that because it's critical to understanding this. See all this gray up on the hillsides here in these sharp areas? That's low brush, like this. It's called chaparral. In some cases it's scrub oak. It's low grasses. It's native out there but this is grass and these are plant that naturally thrive on fire. So when you have a little bit of rain, they grow very quickly and then they dry out and they're intended to burn.

But here is the problem. The reason that this is becoming such a problem in that part of the country, according to some climatologists, interestingly enough, does have a relationship with global warming. Because they say it's setting up a higher cycle of rain and then dryness.

And look at this map. It's an important one to see. This is their prediction for the next 100 years where vegetation will grow, the most in this country. And look at this. Southern California is one of the hottest growing areas and all of that growth means fuel for future fires. That's why when we say what's burning now? What's burning now, Wolf, is what's going to be burning for the next century if these climatologists are right, meaning the fires we're seeing today, in scope and everything else, will likely repeating themselves in cycles of drought for the next hundred years according to these scientists.

BLITZER: Tom, thanks very much; Tom Foreman.

I also want to remind our viewers, coming up a little more than an hour from now, "Planet in Peril," our special series on global warming, Anderson Cooper and his team, Dr. Sanjay Gupta among others. You are going to want to see that tonight, a very, very important program 9:00 pm eastern here on CNN.

Our viewers who live near the fire lines have pulled out their cameras and the results are some amazing pictures. Getting some very, very dramatic pictures close to the fire lines and in the middle of the evacuations. You can see some of these best I-reports. That's coming up next.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Coming up at the top of the hour, a special edition of "AC 360 In The Line Of Fire." Anderson Cooper is going to be anchoring this special. He's over at the Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

Anderson, give us a little preview of what we can expect.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, we're going to be live on the fire lines as well as here at Qualcomm with thousands of evacuees who do not know if their homes are still standing. There is a festive atmosphere here but just a few miles from here it is anything but festive. The fire is still raging out of control.

Also tonight, an exclusive bird's-eye view of the fires as we ride along in a helicopter with California Governor Schwarzenegger.

Plus, global warming and the risk of even more devastating fires in the future. Join me at the top of the hour, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We're also going to be joining you at the top of 9:00 pm eastern for "Planet in Peril." That's a TV event that's coming up as well.

Anderson, thank you very much.

Let's check in with Jack for the Cafferty file.

Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Does it make sense for the United States to commit $1.5 billion to fighting Mexico's drug war when we haven't bothered to secure the border? It's kind of a rhetorical question. If you say yes, it makes sense, then you need treatment.

Tammy in Ohio writes, "I don't think we should be committing money to the drug war in Mexico. Let them fight their own battles. Secure our borders, keep the drugs out of the U.S.. Why do we, as a government, feel such a need to get into other countries' business when we can't get our own issues under control?"

Michael in Michigan, "How can you guys report this stuff without going nuts? The government only wants to spend money if it's for something senseless that will result in nothing more than transferring the money from our coffers to some greedy, bribe taking officials in other countries. Don't they read anything? The Mexican drug problem will take something other than our money to fix."

Michael in Mississippi, "The only expenditure we should consider in regards to Mexico is ammunition for a line of troops the length of the border. $1.4 billion would buy a lot of bullets and deterrence for future illegal crossings."

Rodney in St. George, Utah, "To quote a movie from the '80s, "He's an idiot. His parents were probably idiots, too." With the issues facing this country that you spoke about, that has got to be one of the most ignorant ideas I've ever heard of."

Adrian in California, "I'm so outraged at the moment, I'm speechless. There is so much need in our own country. There are too many issues to list. Send money to Mexico? How about we send them our good wishes and prayers and focus on our own? I don't see anybody running in to bail us out."

And Mark in La Jolla, California, "Bush continues to fail American citizens. Your commentary, 1,000 percent on point. We have no business giving a dime to Mexico while our people suffer. The way I see it, Mexico owes us $1.4 billion to help us fight their problems that have spilled across our border. I am watching my country burn to the ground. Now I have to watch Bush steal my money and give it to Mexico. What a joke."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/Cafferty file. There's more of this there, along with video clips of this here segment.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much. See you back here tomorrow.

There's a double meaning for tonight's Hot Shots. Stay with us for the incredible images of the fires and the flames.

And for our viewers reporting on those fires, they're coming right up to their front door sometimes. Abbi Tatton will be back with your I-reports.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the Hot Shots coming in from the Associated Press, pictures of the firefight in southern California.

In southern California, in eastern Orange County, a fireman sprays water to keep flames from jumping across the road.

In Santa Clarita, a woman watches her home burn; more than 1,000 homes have been destroyed.

Near San Diego, a stairway to nowhere. These stairs and ashes are all that remain of this luxury home.

And in Orange County, a sheriff tries to drive a llama away from the flames.

Some of this hour's Hot Shots of this horrible, horrible story.

I-reports of the raging California fires are pouring into CNN by the minute. Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, for more.

Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, imagine walking out of your front door and this is the scene that you're confronted with this scene. These pictures from Doug Aberg (ph). This is in Saugus, California, north of Los Angeles. The fire coming over the hill in front of him. He said residents there were so shocked because they weren't even under a mandatory evacuation there, and ran around, panicking, getting their stuff together, evacuating this area. He said four homes nearby were destroyed.

But it's not just the flames that are affecting people. Take a look at the ash in this picture. This is Oceanside, California, the home of Brad and Joan Kelly. This is their car. They say it's been raining ash there all day. It smells like burning wood, they said, even though they are miles from any fire.

All day, we've been getting these images coming in to CNN.com/Ireport.

But also, the e-mails of people telling their stories, sharing their information, that they're safe so people can go to the site and see how they're doing.

Some of the e-mails that we've received and posted there, from a student at Pepperdine University, Suren Khachatryan, "I would like to let my relatives, especially my family in Armenia, know that I managed to evacuate." And then there's the story, Wolf, of the people who have lost everything, from Josh Weinstock, of Malibu, California, "Today I watched my house and all of my belongings burn to the ground but at least my family and I are safe."

All the information we'll continue to post there at CNN.com/Ireport.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks very much. Stay with CNN. We're going to stay on top of this story. Over the next hour, special edition of "AC 360," with Anderson Cooper, "In the Line of Fire." That's coming up next.

Until then, thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We'll see you back here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com