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THE SITUATION ROOM

Fires in Southern California

Aired October 24, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Thanks, Jack, very much.
To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening right now, almost a million people forced to flee for their lives in California. Some have already lost everything. We're going to hear from one man who watched his house go up in flames. His family of five now homeless.

This is what some people will come home to -- a neighborhood north of San Diego devastated, as if by a massive bomb. We're going to show you the stunning images of the fire's destruction.

And President Bush blasts what he calls the criminal regime in Cuba. He says change is coming soon.

But are U.S. policies really making a difference?

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

The scope of California's wildfire disaster is growing to stunning proportions today, with close to one million people now displaced. Wind-driven flames have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres, with almost 9,000 firefighters battling the flames. There are 13 major wildfires burning right now in every Southern California County. Each of those counties now in a state of emergency.

Among the latest developments, one of those fires is now being investigated as a possible arson. Law enforcement officials calling that fire suspicious. More than 1,400 homes have been destroyed and 25,000 are threatened. The total size of the damage right now, some 679 square miles -- an area one third larger than all of New York City.

We have CNN correspondents standing by at the major hot spots, including the fire lines and the evacuation centers.

A major setback for firefighters battling a major blaze threatening resort communities. This happening in the mountains east of Los Angeles right now. Hundreds of homes have burned there, and as many as 6,000 additionally threatened. And now crews are suspending their aerial assaults on the flames.

Let's go right to CNN's Ted Rowlands.

He's in Running Springs -- Ted, these air assaults are crucial, but they're being suspended.

Tell our viewers what's going on.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suspended here. Around Southern California, they are continuing. But here, in the mountainous region of Lake Arrowhead, where we are, because of the amount of smoke in the air -- and it is incredible how much smoke this fire -- these two fires in this area have generated. Because of the visibility problems, they have, unfortunately, had to suspend the air attack -- at least for now. They're standing by. As soon as it is clear, they will continue to -- they'll resume that attack.

Meanwhile, the battle still going on in the front lines. We just got some video in. About two miles from here, there was a bit of a spark up, a bit of a flare up, and they had to attack that. It was along a road very close to here. Firefighters converged on that and attacked that to within the last half an hour. And they were able to get that under control.

The winds, as you see behind me, first of all, take a look at the devastation. We're in an area that was just completely demolished. And this goes on for as far as the eye can see in this neighborhood. A total of 500 homes in this region look like this today, unfortunately. Ten thousand people have been evacuated are still evacuated. They're still evacuated. They'll come back to this.

You see the smoke. You can see that there's still see some wind here. But the good news is the wind, for the most part, has died down, Wolf. Although they can't attack it by the air, at least the wind has died down to the point where the fire is losing a lot of its ground. And we're seeing a lot of it burning itself up -- a huge, huge break in terms of the Mother Nature component for firefighters. But still a long, long way to go. And a lot of heartbreak ahead for these people when they do get allowed back into this region -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ted, thanks very much.

Ted Rowlands in Running Springs for us.

The battle against the flames is fought on the ground and in the skies. Take a look at this plane. It's known as the super scooper. It can scoop water up and refill from a lake or a reservoir as shallow as six feet without even stopping.

And look at this. This DC-10 is a former passenger plane that's been modified to hold 50 tons of water or fire retardant. That massive payload can be dumped in as little as eight seconds. We're watching all of this for us.

Let's go to Alex Roth from the "San Diego Tribune" right now -- Alex, some of these pictures that we've seen, the devastation from the so-called Witch Fire.

You're there on the scene. Give us a little sense of what's going on. ALEX ROTH, "SAN DIEGO TRIBUNE": Well, I mean I think it's -- the winds are calmed down a little bit more today. I mean I think things are a little bit more manageable. And I think we've turned a corner today -- or at least that's what it seems like. You know, that's the good news.

The bad news is, is the fires are still burning. They're not nearly, you know, even a fraction contained. And it's going to be a long, you know, tough fight.

BLITZER: Are you seeing these pictures that we're showing on CNN right now?

ROTH: Yes.

BLITZER: Tell us about this neighborhood. Tell us what used to be there.

ROTH: Well, I believe what you're showing right now is Rancho Bernardo. I mean it's a very wealthy, you know, community. I mean there's a lot of, you know, professional people that live there. And as those pictures show, I mean these houses are just incinerated. And the houses that went up, you know, they went up all the way. I mean if your house caught on fire, odds are there is absolutely nothing left, you know? And there's -- there's nothing anybody could do about it. I mean this fire was going to do what it was going to do and everybody just had to get out of the way.

BLITZER: Because there are supposedly steps that people can take to at least reduce the risk.

ROTH: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, I mean, obviously, you don't want to have a wood roof, you don't want to -- you want to clear brush, you know, within several yards of your property. I mean there's a number of things you can do that can reduce the risk. But you obviously...

BLITZER: Alex, look at this. You see one side of the street, the homes completely destroyed. On the other side of the street, the houses intact. It's really amazing.

ROTH: Right. It is. And you see that every -- we saw that in 2003 and we're seeing that again, you know, this time around. The fire is just so random and it's so fickle. You can have one house that's fully engulfed and you can have the next house where, you know, the rose bushes are still standing.

BLITZER: Explain to us how that happens.

ROTH: I have -- you know, it's just luck. It's random. I mean a lot of times these fires start because embers get in the air and they travel miles and miles. And if one ember happens to go through, you know, an air duct in somebody's roof and catch the insulation on fire in their roof, it's all over. It's just -- it's the luck of the draw.

BLITZER: What about your house? Where do you live, Alex?

Are you OK?

ROTH: Well, I live on the coast in Carlsbad. And I -- my family -- me and my wife and our dog and two cats, we evacuated a couple of nights ago. We drove downtown to stay at my mother's condo. So we are -- we are safe at the moment. Our house, I'm assuming, is fine, because they lifted the evacuation order for Carlsbad earlier today.

BLITZER: What about the air around that area and the air where -- elsewhere?

ROTH: Well, basically all of San Diego, at the moment, smells like the inside of a chimney, you know?

So you just don't want to be -- you know, you just don't want to be outside. It's just not healthy.

BLITZER: And especially for those who have ailments to begin with.

ROTH: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Alex Roth with the "San Diego Tribune".

Thanks, Alex, very much for that report.

The ferocious Santa Ana winds, known as devil winds, by the way, that have stoked this California fire are starting to ease up today. That's good news.

Are the firefighters finally about to get a little break?

Let's turn to our meteorologist and severe weather expert Chad Myers.

He's at the CNN Weather Center -- so what's the answer, Chad?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes. The firefighters are going to get a much needed break from the wind, but, also, some much needed help from NASA. Now, you don't expect this. But think about the predator drone. We talk about these predator drones all the time when we talk about Afghanistan and Iraq.

But do you know they're flying a predator drone now through the fires with an image camera that can actually see through this smoke?

It took off from Edwards Air Force Base, flew all the way down across the I-10, all the way through into San Diego, crisscrossed back and forth, and is now circling up across the Arrowhead Fire, right where our Ted Rowlands is.

If Ted looks up -- 23,000 feet, so it's way up there, and it's pretty quiet -- he may be able to see the drone through the smoke. The drone is up there flying around. The fire is on the ground up here, north of San Bernardino. And there's NASA Flight 870. It's a 10-hour flight, Wolf, and it's going to be flying around there all night long tonight, looking for the hottest spots and telling -- it's unmanned, nobody there. But the Edwards Air Force Base guys are flying it around with a joy stick. They're looking for the hottest spots and where the hot spots are, that's where they're going to send the fire crews, because that's where they know that the most of the fire is still concentrated. Where it's cooling down, they're not going to send firefighters there.

One more breath of a push of air tonight, Wolf, as the air comes down out of the mountains. But the winds are only going to gust to about 25 or 30. That shouldn't send sparks flying. It'll fan the flames, but not make an inferno out of it.

BLITZER: So if the wind dies down, obviously, that's good.

What about rain?

Is there any -- that's what they really could use, a lot of rain right now.

MYERS: Yes, right.

BLITZER: Any prospects of that happening?

MYERS: No. There is a front that's going to come onshore and it's going to try to bring in some marine moisture -- a marine layer. But that's not enough to make any real rainfall.

What it is going to do is remember all that smoke I showed you that's out here in the ocean -- over the ocean? It's going to get pushed back into L.A. and Riverside, all the way through 29 Palms and the like.

And so we are going to see the air pollution, the air quality, go down and stay down for much of the weekend. And people with asthma and anybody, really, with sensitivities to bad air are going to have to really be careful out there, because this air is going to be over the L.A. Basin all weekend long -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Chad.

Thanks very much.

We'll check back with you.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty -- Jack, look at these pictures, before you start The Cafferty File.

Look at this neighborhood. These are live pictures coming in from San Diego. These were beautiful, beautiful homes. And, you know, you can only imagine what the residents -- the families who are seeing these pictures and they're wondering, you know, what do they do next, what do they go through?

Some homes completely destroyed and then right next door a house is intact. It's an amazing picture that, no matter how many times you see it, you try to understand some of this, it makes no sense.

CAFFERTY: Is it true that there's been an arrest, that one of the -- at least one of these fires is believed to have been arson?

BLITZER: The FBI, apparently, is suspicious about one of the -- the start of one of the fires. And they're investigating. I don't know if there's been an arrest yet, but they are looking at it very, very carefully as potentially arson.

CAFFERTY: I mean that's just -- that boggles the mind, that somebody would be capable of that kind of wanton destruction.

All right, Wolf.

Up until George Bush decided that he was the decider, the president of the United States didn't have the power to spy on Americans without a warrant. Didn't have the power to operate secret prisons around the world. Didn't have the power to suspend due process for people classified as enemy combatants or torture them. Didn't have the power to hide the conduct of the government from public and from Congress.

We used to have something called oversight.

Remember that?

It's not like anybody gave President Bush any of these powers. He took them, as a brain dead Congress just stood there and watched. And while this new Congress -- the one we have now -- promised they were going to do something about an executive branch run amok, well, the fact of the matter is, they've done next to nothing. The wars go on, the abuses go on and the whining about why the Democrats just can't seem to find their elusive backbones to keep their campaign promises, well, that goes on, too.

So it looks like we if we're ever going to get back to where we were seven years ago, it might have to be on a voluntary basis. The next president might have to decide to do the right thing and restore some semblance of balance to the government.

Whether it happens or not, it makes for a great campaign promise. Hillary Clinton says that the Bush/Cheney administration has engaged in a power grab not supported by the constitution and that she will consider giving up some of that executive power if she becomes president.

Here's the catch. She didn't provide any specifics as to what power she would relinquish, but said it would be part of a review that she would undertake when in office.

Here's our question -- what powers should the next president be willing to surrender?

E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack.

A good question.

Up ahead, a father watches his own house burn down, leaving his family homeless. We're going to hear from a man who's lost almost everything.

And the desperate fight to hold back the flames -- we'll get a closer look at the biggest flames and how those battles are going right now.

Also, President Bush tells Cubans -- and I'm quoting now -- "Your day is coming soon." But after half a century, the U.S. is still waiting for the Castro regime to crumble.

Has anything really changed?

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: See these homes. These are live pictures we're getting in. These homes completely destroyed, except for, perhaps, a chimney. But then some house miraculously survives.

Thousands of people lost their homes in Southern California and more losing them to flames right now.

We're joined on the phone by one of them, Barry Spear. His family includes four children, one of them a 5-week-old baby.

Barry, our heart goes out to you.

I want to show our viewers, first of all, what your home used to look like. This was your beautiful house. I know you spent years getting it ready, working on it. Take a look at the railing right there next to the vehicle. That's what it would look like only a few days ago.

Now, take a look at this. That's where the railing was, but you can see the rubble. You can see the damage, the devastation. No home left whatsoever -- just a tiny little piece of that railing.

Barry, tell -- first, of all, our heart goes out to you and your family.

Tell us what it's like to live through this nightmare.

BARRY SPEAR, FIRE VICTIM: Well, it's unbelievable. You know, the other night we went through the Cedar Creek Fires. And we were in Ramona at the time. And this time we were, you know, of course, in Escondido. And I got a call from my parents. They said well, come on down to our place. We'll set you up. It's safe here. No problem. We didn't expect this at all. And we even had them come down. By the time they got to us, we were calling -- or they were calling us for an evacuation out of our home.

Still, we didn't think this kind of thing would really happen and, you know, my family left and I drove around to the other side. And from that point, I was able to actually watch the whole thing happen. And I couldn't believe, you know, watching my -- my home catch fire and burn right in front of my eyes -- something that we worked on for -- actually, for four years trying to build our -- most of it ourselves and but...

BLITZER: It was really a beautiful home.

Did you manage to get some stuff out of the house -- some photos, some artifacts some mementos -- before the house simply burnt down?

SPEAR: Thankfully, we did. We had, you know, as far as advance notice and everything, we had really good -- really good help as far as that goes. And we were able to get all of our pictures and some family history and some immediate important things to our children. And, you know, we took our -- what we could in our two vehicles, which wasn't much. But those items that were most important we did grab.

BLITZER: And we're showing our viewers your -- some of your kids.

How are they doing, first of all?

How is the family doing right now?

SPEAR: They're doing really well. You know, my daughter, who's 5, has said some things and at one point she'll cry and say, "That's gone. We don't have that any more."

But, you know, we explain to them that, you know, all of these things can be replaced and we're really lucky. You know, we still have our wonderful family and they're doing really well.

BLITZER: And you have insurance.

Are you going to rebuilt there?

What are your plans, Barry?

SPEAR: You know, we are. We're going to rebuild. We -- thankfully, we have good insurance and we've been in touch with them. And I think we'll be -- we'll be well taken care of as far as that goes. The house is -- the house will be replaced. We built before and we'll do it again. We'll rebuild it. And, you know, I think we'll be fine. It's more a matter of the sentimental value of all those people that helped us build the first time that, you know, kind of -- the house is sort of a memory of all the good people that helped us to build it.

BLITZER: Barry Spear, good luck to you.

Good luck to your family.

Thank God at least all of you emerged OK.

We appreciate it very much.

The California wildfires are putting a double strain on some members of the U.S. military, who are helping with emergency efforts. And Marines from Camp Pendleton in Southern California are now among the evacuees themselves.

Let's go back to Brian Todd.

He's following this part of the story over at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, north of San Diego.

What are you seeing -- Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are close to Camp Pendleton. This facility is actually close to where a lot of the fires are burning. This place was thrust into this role very quickly and it is now supporting victims from all walks of life.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

TODD (voice-over): This place was supposed to shelter only animals. But after just one day, people started pouring into this sprawling complex.

From infants to the elderly, nearly 2,000 now occupy the Del Mar Fairgrounds. We came here from Camp Pendleton -- a massive Marine base dealing with several fires. So did Leticia Decker (ph), a young Marine wife. Doctors say her three-month-old daughter may have asthma. Even here, she can't escape the smoke from these fires. And Leticia has one thing on her mind.

LETICIA DECKER: Whether you're making the right decision to keep her safe. It's been stressful, very stressful. We're just -- we're going to go home now. We're told that the fire in the area is under control. So, it's just nerve-wracking.

TODD: Also, nerve-wracking for Tom and Joyce Liegler (ph). For years, Tom's been hobbled by a stroke. Their house is only four miles away from here in Rancho Santa Fe. But they're not allowed back. They watch TV, look at lists of burned and saved houses. Still no news about their home.

How does this 80-year-old deal with the uncertainty?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't have much longer to live.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, come on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And our home can be replaced, financially we can -- living in this area, we can rebuild. But I don't know if I want to go through all of that again with the short life we have ahead.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: An incredibly fatalistic approach to a life that's been thrown into chaos, as so many have here.

One other note about that young Marine wife, Leticia Decker (ph). Her husband has just returned from Iraq, where he has been deployed three times now. With all that she's going through right now, Wolf, she's just glad he's here so that they can get through this entire ordeal together.

BLITZER: Brian, earlier in the day, you were out and you saw some of the smoke that's really engulfing huge areas out there.

And we have a report of what you saw.

I want to go to the videotape of this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: It would be packed with cars. But, look, it's nothing but smoke down the road because of this fire right up here, right at Camp Pendleton. That's at the edge of the freeway. It is really just deserted here, except for firefighters.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Brian, all right, so we're seeing you walking in. You're getting in close to some of those fire lines. But we can see the smoke that's really thick.

What was it like?

TODD: It was really surreal, Wolf. I mean that was the point of the day when the sun should have been coming up. It should have been very bright around here. But it was almost pitch black, as you could see. There was smoke everywhere. I mean that Interstate-5 is notorious for being just very heavily trafficked at almost all points of the day. It was deserted. We walked right up to the flames there. We picked a guy right off the fire line to interview -- a young fire crew lieutenant, who has been here since, I think, Sunday or Monday morning. And he was just telling us that he's exhausted and he can barely get through this now. And, you know, this story is repeated just so many times throughout this area.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much.

Brian Todd out in California for us.

In some places, those ferocious winds are starting to die down, but the fires are raging on.

Let's get a closer look at the worst of them right now.

Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM -- what do you have?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, as of this morning, there were 19 different fires -- a tremendous number out there. But we can narrow it down to the ones that seem to be making the biggest difference right now, or at least causing the most damage.

Let's look first at the Harris Fire, which is down here, near San Diego. That's down here. Los Angeles is up here. The Harris Fire and then also the Rice Fire, which is up in here, and the Slide Fire, up here, have all destroyed about 200 houses and/or businesses.

It gets a little bit bigger when you include the Grass Valley Fire, which is also up in this area. That took about 300 structures out.

But, of course, the big one that everyone is talking about -- we talked a minute ago to the Spear family. The area that's been of so much concern here is the Witch Fire here, which is now combined with another one, to be called Witch-Poomacha Fire. And that's a big area and we've been talking so much about the smoke and the difficulty is poses for people's health and for fighting the fire.

A little while ago, we heard about the predator drones trying to see what's happening on the ground. This is why it's an issue.

Look at these images that we got from DigitalGlobe. Unbelievable pictures of how the smoke has just layered into these valleys and is utterly impenetrable. This is difficult to work in. This is difficult to get in and out of. It's difficult to assess the fire situation.

You can see what it would normally be like. You can see down into these valleys. You see how deep they are. You see how many homes are clustered down here. And yet it is a solid blanket of white, of all of that smoke there.

This is the biggest, hottest fire area. We have five of them right now in terms of the greatest amount of damage. As it dies down, this is where you're going to see the most assessment of people going back in saying, how do we deal with all these homes lost?

In the Witch Fire area alone, 500 homes, 100 businesses destroyed and close to 7,000 homes and businesses threatened. So we'll have to find out how many of those survive this fire.

BLITZER: And I want to show you some pictures that we're just getting in.

Take a look behind me.

You can see the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood out there. And these pictures -- these are live pictures coming in from San Diego right now.

And, Tom, if you see these houses that have completely been destroyed -- maybe a chimney is left. But then occasionally you'll see a house that managed to survive, in relatively good shape. And it's just amazing how some houses survive and others are completely destroyed as a result of these flames. FOREMAN: Well, and you know that every time we put these images on, how many people are out there in those shelters and in homes and staying with friends or wherever they are, looking at all of these pictures, trying to pick out where their streets are. As I said, as the smoke clears and we get more pictures, hopefully, if these fires die down, then at least people will know where they stand, because so many thousands right now just don't know -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom, thanks very much.

Thousands of people are finding shelter after evacuating their homes. But they can't always take their pets with them. CNN I- Reporters are sending us their videos of their stories. You're going to want to see this.

Also, were campus police out of line when they tasered an annoying student at an event with Senator John Kerry?

The report of this now infamous incident is now out.

Stay with us. We'll share it with you.

All that and a lot more right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We'll get back to California and the fires in a moment.

But Carol Costello is off today.

Brianna Keilar is monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Brianna, what's going on?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm sure you remember this scene. It made, "Don't 'tase me, bro" an instant national catchphrase. And now a state investigation has cleared University of Florida police, saying they were justified in using a taser on a student who disrupted a speech by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Of course, this happened last month. Two officers who were placed on leave at that time were reinstated today.

Vaccinating toddlers against the flu without the shot -- it sounds good, right?

Well, an advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the FluMist naval spray vaccine can be given to children as young as two. Current guidelines put the cutoff age at five, but the CDC does usually follow recommendations by the advisory panel.

And some stores in Wisconsin may soon be handing out free samples of liquor. Yes, that's right. A provision in the new state budget allows up to three half ounce samples per person. The state already allows free samples of beer and wine and the Wisconsin governor could veto the plan, but so far, Wolf, he's not commenting. BLITZER: Thanks Brianna very much.

And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, almost a million California residents are displaced by the wildfires ravaging the state and fire investigators now label one of those blazes suspicious.

Also, the first political casualty from that deadly Blackwater shooting incident in Iraq. Richard Griffin, the State Department's Chief of Diplomatic Security has now resigned.

And the cost of President Bush's war on terror, possibly $2.4 trillion by 2017. The congressional budget office says the Iraq war will account for more than 70 percent of that.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Fire is closing in on about 3,000 homes in Orange County right now sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Diego.

CNN's Keith Oppenheim is joining us now live from what is called the Santiago Canyon region.

The fire seems to -- you can see the smoke behind you. Keith, tell our viewers what is going on.

KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is a very active fire line, Wolf, and let's just zoom in so you can get a better look of what I can see in this canyon behind me. This is a rural, unincorporated part of Orange County. Not all the homes are as big as the ones you see in the distance but there are about 25 of them in these hills and there's a lot of air support right now, many helicopters coming through trying to save those homes from this fire.

We're just going to tilt down a little bit and you can see that there are a number of fire crews here. I'm told about 100. This area is evacuated and down the road, one resident told me that he's just been quite emotional and thankful that the firefighters saved his home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was just actually back to my house. I lost my garage, which was on the upper side of the property and I lost a deck, which was on the other side of the house.

OPPENHEIM: The main part of the house is OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is OK. You know just hats off to the crew.

OPPENHEIM: You're emotional just because they saved your house.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These guys don't even get paid. They don't even get paid. The Majeska Canyon Fire Department, they don't get paid for what they do and they saved my house. OPPENHEIM: The big picture on this fire, Wolf, so far as we know, is that nine homes have gone down. 17 buildings burned. Orange County authorities suspect that this is an arson fire. And you know, just to get to this spot wasn't easy for our crew. You just have to improvise. So on the way we got turned around by a county deputy and he told us the reason why that he had to turn us around is because the FBI is in the area and indeed, our sources have told us that there was a house search in Orange County because of suspected arson. So we're putting two and two together and we think that was the spot. But all I can tell you for sure is we were turned around and had to find our way, another way to get to here.

Back to you.

BLITZER: Keith Oppenheim, thanks very much. Keith watching this story for us. Let's go to Kelli Arena who has more on the suspicion that arson may have been responsible for this fire that Keith was just talking about.

Kelli, what are you picking up?

KELLI ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, we have heard from the Orange County sheriff's office who says there is an investigation under way involving that Santiago fire. Officials say they basically identified three points of origin and that they said that is very suspicious. Those areas have been declared crime scenes, which is why Keith wasn't allowed anywhere near there. Now that Santiago fire has burned more than 19,000 acres, Wolf, and it's destroyed at least 17 structures.

ATF officials say they're sending national response teams to the scene. Those are made up of criminal investigators, engineers, scientists to assist local authorities and as you know Wolf, those investigators are among the best in the business. Law enforcement sources also say that FBI agents and local officials did search a house that is in Orange County today as part of that investigation and, as you know, Orange County halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, we haven't been able to determine, though, exactly they have gotten out of that house today, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll stay on top of that story. Thanks, Kelli, very much.

An army is battling the California fires. The governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says there are almost 9,000 on the front lines. Of those 2,300 are inmates from California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The defense department has 67 personnel on a dozen teams fighting the fires and the mayor of Tijuana in Mexico has sent four fire engines and their crews across the border to San Diego to help.

It's a success story in the midst of disaster. The emergency shelter at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium is by all accounts taking excellent care of more than 7,000 evacuees right now, thanks in large part to a huge number of volunteers who are simply showing up.

CNN's Thelma Gutierrez is out there and she's ready to tell us who these volunteers are.

Thelma, who are they?

THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I can tell you, we've seen volunteers who are showing up in clown suits. There are others who are showing up with their drums and their saxophones and there have been musicians, crisis counselors, many different people who have been walking through the doors here at Qualcomm to try to help the more than 12,000 people who have actually signed up here and who have registered for help.

Now, we've also noticed that people have been stopping by with donations, palettes of water, toilet paper, food. There have been marines stopping by with diapers and formula and mothers dropping off gallons of milk and kids with trays of brownies. So there have been many people who helped this effort, who are reaching out to the folks at a time of need.

One of those people is Kelsey Perry. Kelsey is a person who is in a very special situation. Kelsey lost her home during this fire. She just learned about it.

Kelsey, can you tell me what you found out? I mean you showed up here as a volunteer and yet you're going through this very difficult time yourself.

KELSEY PERRY, EVACUEE & VOLUNTEER: Well, I just felt as though I didn't really want to be sitting on the couch at home just watching TV, watching the news. I wanted to be here and be helping out. I felt so helpless just sitting there.

GUTIERREZ: When did you find out that you actually lost your home?

PERRY: Yesterday was when we found out from my friend. He and his family had actually gone up there to check it out and he called my dad and told us that there was nothing left of it.

GUTIERREZ: When you heard that, how did that hit you?

PERRY: At first we cried, but then I mean, it's kind of just like a time to be able to start over. It's really depressing, though, you know. All of our stuff was in there and we weren't able to get really anything out and I grew up in that house. But it's really, it's kind of exciting in a sad way because I get to help design the new house now and I get to be a part of that.

GUTIERREZ: You're turning a negative into a positive with your perspective but also because you're so willing to help other people who are also in need. Kelsey, thank you so much. Good luck to you and your family.

Wolf, this is the kind of thing that we've been noticing all day as we've standing out here talking to people. Many of the volunteers who are helping out are evacuees themselves.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Thelma, thanks very much. Thanks for that report.

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

Much more on the fires coming up.

Also other news we're following, Cuba after Castro. President Bush says Cuba is now being run by a criminal regime, but he says help is on the way. What does he mean by that?

Also, is Iran fanning the flames of the insurgency inside Iraq right now? The British foreign secretary David Miliband is standing by. He tells us there's some compelling evidence of that and more.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Get back to the fires in California soon. President Bush today blasting Cuba's leadership as a "criminal regime" and promising the Cuban people that change is on the way.

Let's go right to our state correspondent Zain Verjee. The president had tough talk today towards Fidel Castro and Cuba.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, the president talked tough but it's not likely to make a difference.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH, UNITED STATES: Your day is coming soon.

VERJEE: President Bush surrounded by families of Cuban prisoners made a dramatic pitch for political change in Cuba.

BUSH: You have the power to shape your own destiny.

VERJEE: The president says the Cuban regime is losing support, pointing to peaceful demonstrations in Cuba like the ladies in white. For four years they have been demanding the release of political prisoners and he appealed directly to the military and the police to switch sides.

BUSH: You've got to make a choice. Will you defend disgrace and dying order by using force against your own people? Or will you embrace your people's desire for change?

PETER KORNBLUH, NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE: He's basically calling on the Cuban people to rise up. This is a dangerous initiative.

VERJEE: Peter Kornbluh is a critic of U.S. policy towards Cuba. He says the U.S. can't influence change in Cuba because it's on the sidelines. KORNBLUH: As the United States has stood by silently, sticking to the idea that the Castro regime will somehow crumble, Fidel Castro has successfully passed power to his brother, Raul Castro.

VERJEE: The U.S. has tried to bring down the regime by isolating it through trade and travel embargoes. President Bush says the trade restrictions won't change and he dared the regime to bring Cuba out of the cold. He says the U.S. will ease restrictions on contacts with Cuba, give Cubans computers and Internet access, offer scholarship programs and start a fund for Cuba to help rebuild its economy. But only if the Cuban regime opens up and allows democratic change.

Wolf, with the presidential elections just around the corner, some say that President Bush needed to sound tough to appeal it his political base in Miami.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain Verjee at the state department, thanks very much.

Iran, another arch foe of the Bush administration, was on the agenda this week as the British foreign secretary David Miliband paid a visit to Washington. After his meetings with the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among others, I asked if he believes the Iranians are, in fact, fuelling the flames in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID MILIBAND, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: I think there is some compelling evidence of Iranian support for attacks against coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's also been the interdiction of some of those elements, some of those supplies and pushing back against that Iranian influence.

BLITZER: I was going to say are you on the same page with the Bush administration when it comes to their deep concerns about Iran developing a nuclear bomb?

MILIBAND: Absolutely. I think the whole world expressed in U.N. security council resolutions, supported unanimously across the security council, including Russia and China, has said very clearly to Iran that there is a deal on offer, a very clear deal. Which is engagement with the international community, economic, social, technological cooperation, if they are willing to abandon this very dangerous drive for a nuclear weapon. And the last thing the Middle East needs is a nuclear arm's race. I think the world has spoken very clearly. There are meetings this week that are important and then by the end of next month all of us in the international community have made clear that we'll look at whether or not Iranian engagement is leading to a positive outcome.

BLITZER: President Bush this week speaking out forcefully on the need for a European-based missile defense shield to prevent any threat coming in from Iran. Listen to what the president said. Listen to this. BUSH: The need for missile defense in Europe is real and I believe it's urgent. Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons. And ballistic missiles of increasing range that could deliver them.

BLITZER: All right. When it comes to this missile defense shield, are you on the same page as the president?

MILIBAND: I think that the president's engagement with the Russian government most recently through the visit of Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice to Moscow was absolutely right. I think they're working very closely with the Polish and other governments in terms of the citing of this. I think that the simple message that the president is giving, which is European security is a concern for the United States, is absolutely right and absolutely appropriate.

BLITZER: So you support this creation of this missile defense shield?

MILIBAND: Well, I think we have certainly got to explore all options and that's what's on the table in the way the administration are pursuing this in the moment.

BLITZER: The Russians hate this idea.

MILIBAND: Well, that's why I mention Secretary Gates and Rice to Moscow. Because I think there is some realism coming into this question.

Obviously, the rhetoric that you sometimes hear from Moscow talk about somehow being used against Russia. That's not true. This is about a threat that actually threatens the whole of Western Europe and it's in Russia's interest to cooperate. And I think that some of the signs that have come out of the most recent meetings in Moscow are positive in that regard.

BLITZER: Because President Bush has been speaking in almost apocalyptic terms about all of this. Listen to what he said the other day about the prospects of a global war. Listen to this.

BUSH: If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. And I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously.

BLITZER: Is he going over the top when he warns of World War III?

MILIBAND: Well, I think he said that he takes the threat very seriously.

BLITZER: World War III, is that appropriate?

MILIBAND: I think the president is making very, very clear, this is something that should concern the whole of the world community. I would say that you have the United States working in step with allies like the U.K., but also with the Chinese, the Russians, the whole of the European union in the so-called E-3 plus 3 process, the European three countries plus Russia, China and America. Working very closely to be clear to the Iranians that we have every intention of working closely with them in a cooperative spirit but not in a cooperative spirit that leads towards a nuclear weapon in Iran. Also, I would say is the drive to a nuclear weapon that threatens the whole of the non- proliferation regime. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East is the last thing any of us need.

BLITZER: If diplomacy fails, is Britain prepared to support military options against Iran's developing a nuclear bomb?

MILIBAND: I always say to people we and everyone else in the international community are 100 percent focused on a diplomatic resolution to this. People always then say but what if? And the first rule of diplomacy is that you keep the hypotheticals to yourself. You say to people, look at what I am saying, not what I'm not saying. And what I'm saying is that Britain along with the U.S. and other allies are working very, very closely on a diplomatic track with teeth that works.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: David Miliband the British foreign secretary speaking with me.

Let's check in with Lou to see what is coming up at the top of the hour.

Lou.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thank you very much.

Tonight we're reporting on the desperate struggle to try to contain some of those massive wildfires now raging in southern California. Nearly a million people have fled their homes. Officials believe an arsonist may be responsible for at least one of the largest fires.

Also tonight, the toy industry refusing to give American consumers a choice this holiday season; toy brands continuing to import huge quantities of potentially dangerous toys from communist China. We'll have that special report.

And the pro-illegal alien open borders lobby suffering another major defeat on Capitol Hill, senators today killing another effort to introduce amnesty legislation. Pro-amnesty lawmakers refuse to give up. We'll have that story.

And a leading opponent of the amnesty lobby Senator Jeff Sessions among our guests here tonight. Senator Sessions, by the way, says Congress is still determined to stiff the will of the majority of American citizens.

Please, join us at the top of the hour for all of that, all the day's news. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: We'll see you in a few moments, Lou, thank you.

And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Jack Cafferty wants to know, what powers should the next president be willing to surrender? Jack with Cafferty file coming up.

Almost a million people fleeing the flames in southern California but what about their pets? We're going to show you what is being done for the animals.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty for the Cafferty File.

Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The question this hour is what powers should the next president be willing to surrender?

Marlin in Illinois, "First and foremost, the country should not be allowed to go to war without a declaration of war passed by the Congress of the United States. Secondly, no war should be approved unless this country is attacked or its vital interests and allies attacked. We need to stop this war of choice by the executive branch."

Bill in Idaho writes, "It's the American people who have given up their power. Remember the '60s? Well, they're back. Only this time it's not a decade. It's the age on our driver's licenses. Let's start another revolution but this time we won't be starry eyed hippies. We'll be cranky senior citizens with nothing to lose. It's time to overthrow the government."

Terry in Vancouver, "King Bush, Queen Hillary. America is now a democratic dictatorship. Nobody is going to change that. Power is everything. Get used to it."

Rob in Redding, California writes, "Simply, just the ones that are unconstitutional."

Melvin in Colorado, "Sorry, Jack, CNN only gives you a couple minutes each hour, so instead of listing all the powers that need to be returned, let's just say a whole bunch."

Leslie in Indiana, "George Bush is the next president. He and Darth Cheney will be surrendering none of their bounty. Forty years of planning to hand it all to Hillary Clinton? Not a chance. If you think there will be a November 8th election, give my regards to the Easter bunny."

And Darryl writes from Kerrville, Texas, "Hopefully our next president will relinquish the power to make me involuntarily grown out loud in public."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/Caffertyfile. We post more of them online, along with video clips of the Cafferty File.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack, very much.

J.T. Alpaugh, the helicopter pilot who has been flying over these devastated areas in southern California, he's joining us on the phone right now.

J.T., you've been spending a lot of time seeing this devastation. You're looking at these pictures that we've gotten in from these areas, utter destruction. Give us a sense, historic sense of what's going on.

J.T. ALPAUGH, HELICOPTER PILOT: Hey, Wolf, what's going on? Well, basically good news here in southern California today. The winds have finally died down. The winds that Santa Ana condition, that Santa Ana event, those wind howling out of the north have finally subsided. What's happening now that's giving firefighters a break, getting those aircraft resources in there to try to stop these fires. Devastation like you're seeing right now, all throughout southern California and the eight to ten fires that have been burning here for the past three days. Absolute devastation and we've been witnessing these homes burning from the helicopter for the past two days. It's just absolutely astonishing.

BLITZER: As you see these images and you're looking at these pictures right now, the so-called Witch fire, this, if you multiply this fire many times you get a sense of the destruction and even though the winds have died down, J.T., these flames are still continuing.

ALPAUGH: Absolutely. Now, that these fires have gotten their start and gotten so much burning going, basically, they're now being fuel-driven fires. All the fuel that's been in the way of fires, it's a monster that's been started by the wind. That is going to be incredibly hard to stop, like standing in front of a locomotive. Basically they need to attack the fires and that's what we've seen the fire departments doing. Coming in, slowing the fire down from the flanks, laying down retardant, trying to get in front of these fires and stop them while they can, while they have a break in this wind weather.

BLITZER: What's it like flying over these areas in your helicopter because there's probably a lot of aircraft up in the sky. Is it a pretty dangerous situation, especially when you add in the smoke and the observation problems that are coming in?

ALPAUGH: Well, the first three days, Wolf, was actually better than it has been today. Because of that wind blowing, it's actually been blowing the smoke out towards the ocean and away from us. We all had great separation, but now what's happened is that the winds have stopped and that smoke is just pouring into the Los Angeles and southern California basin and creating the visibility issue. We're sitting down here at the Orange County Airport and we can only see three or four miles in visibility. That makes it very difficult to not only see each other but to see the ground. We maintained lots of separation up there and these fires are so large that we can have five, six, eight helicopters in one area and not even see each other all day. That's how large these fires are.

BLITZER: J.T., having any trouble breathing out there? Because they say the air is really full of smoke.

ALPAUGH: I have it tell you, Wolf, today has been the toughest day because like we've said, with all that smoke out there, we've sucked up more smoke today than we have in the past three days. So, yes, a little bit harder to breathe today, but we're trying to stay out of the smoke, because if we're flying through the smoke we can't show the pictures like you're seeing on the screen.

BLITZER: J.T. Alpaugh, thanks very much. Be careful up in the skies up over these areas.

Of the more than 900,000 people who have been ordered in California to evacuate their home, many are unable to provide a safe shelter for their pats.

Let's go back to our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton. She is watching this part of the story.

Who is helping all these pets, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, there's certainly no lack of offers. If you look around on online forums like on Craig's List that have popped up over the last few days, you see dozens of people up and down the west coast offering accommodations, shelter, for the evacuated animals.

The San Diego Humane Society is the body that's trying to coordinate all these efforts and we spoke it them earlier. They've been providing resources and staffing the shelters at the evacuation centers. What they need, they say, is the larger crates, the kind of things that the animals can spend a little bit more time in if they're going it be there for a few days and they're looking for pop-up tents that could shelter these animals and shade them from the sun. The San Diego Humane Society has got specially trained volunteers and going out and responding to calls for evacuation requests for the pets. They've saved more than 500 animals so far, including a few strays. Details of the strays that they're picking up they're posting online at their website.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks very much.

I want our viewers to mark their calendars. Starting November 5th, one year from Election Day, THE SITUATION ROOM will be on for three hours back to back, 4 to 7 p.m. eastern. "LOUD DOBBS TONIGHT" will start at 7 p.m. eastern.

Lou is standing by in New York right now.

Lou.

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