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Firefighters Work to Contain Southern California Blazes; Was California Prepared?

Aired October 25, 2007 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Suspicion tonight, and sadness, and hope as well, the hope on the fire lines, crews making good progress, 13 fires now 100 contained. That is great. The massive Witch fire, 20 percent contained. That's a big improvement from yesterday. The Harris fire is not getting better, but it's not getting any worse. It's holding at 10 percent containment, same as it was yesterday.
There is hope and there is suspicious as well, big rewards now being offered, a quarter-million dollars and a major investigation now under way into who set the Santiago fire in Orange County. We're going to have the latest on that and other fires that authorities think might have been deliberately set.

Hope, too, in the contrast between this disaster and Hurricane Katrina, the responses to it, the president on the ground early, California's governor seemingly everywhere, but sadness and serious questions as well. Did tight federal money leave California dangerously unprepared?

Six new deaths reported since last night, and thousands now discovering that they have lost everything, even as their next-door neighbors find their property virtually untouched, random mercy and savagery on the street where they live.

All that and more in the hour ahead, including a really wild ride on a Navy water-dumping mission. That is the -- the -- the helicopter. It is rough, risky, but vital. The tough questions, though, were they sent in too late and did the area have too few of them to make a difference before things truly got out of hand? We are "Keeping Them Honest."

First, though, the big picture, starting with the crime angle.


COOPER (voice-over): The horror...


COOPER: ... the heartbreak, was some of it caused by arson? Investigators think at least some of the wildfires were. Right now, five people have been arrested.

The toll is staggering, more than half-a-million acres of land destroyed, nearly a million people driven from their homes.


COOPER: Today, some returned, only to find ruins.

For others, the news was worse. The bodies of two more people were found in a burned-out home in San Diego and four more in a canyon east of San Diego. The wildfires and the battle against them rage on. Several have been contained, but 10 remain out of control. Calmer winds have helped firefighters gain ground.

President Bush took a personal look at the destruction, thanking Governor Schwarzenegger for his leadership, and promising to do what wasn't done after Hurricane Katrina.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want the people to know that there's a better day ahead; that today, your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life's going to be better. And to the extent that the federal government can help you, we want to do so.

COOPER: But for now, thousands of people are still living in shelters. Governor Schwarzenegger says this catastrophe touches everyone.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: The only way to grasp the true magnitude is to see it for yourself and to be out there with the people whose lives have been turned upside down. Seeing all of this destruction this week has been saddening, but, at the same time, I have to say it also has been very inspirational, because we have seen how people have come together.

COOPER: Coming together and coming home, the reality too much for this family.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We lost everything.

COOPER: Breaking down as they bear witness to complete devastation.


COOPER: The house behind me completely destroyed. I'm in a cul- de-sac here. Just about every house has been destroyed, except for one. One house is still standing at the end of the cul-de-sac. It is -- it is surreal. A lot of people here have been using that word today.

More now on the Santiago fire, which authorities say was started along an isolated road by an arsonist who knew his or her dirty business. The reward now a quarter-million dollars, as we said, for any information leading to an arrest.

We have more on the investigation from CNN's John Zarrella.


JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: The fire started here Sunday, where the Santiago and Silverado canyons meet. The burn-out land is now marked by crime scene tape. Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents spent today at the scene looking for more evidence.

This, they say, is one of the two places where the Santiago Canyon fire was set. And there's no question, investigators say, it was arson.

Orange County officials fire who got to the scene on Sunday first say that within minutes it had spread miles.

CHIEF CHIP PRATHER, ORANGE COUNTY FIRE AUTHORITY: The person or persons who did this either are exceptionally lucky or they have some knowledge about where you might want to do the most damage when you set a fire.

ZARRELLA: The investigation is just in its initial stage. No arrests have been made, no search warrants issued, and investigators won't say what evidence they have collected. Many residents who live here spend their time at the bottom of the canyon road waiting. They want only two things, to be allowed home and to get their hands on whoever did this.

MIKE THOMPSON, RESIDENT: I can't believe that anybody would actually do something like that to people they don't even know. If you want my true feelings, I would like to have 15 minutes with the guy alone.

ZARRELLA: Others like John Cunningham (ph) are so angry, they don't even want to talk about it.

(on camera): And how do you feel, just knowing now that somebody did this on purpose?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not even prepared to go there right now. So, bigger concerns right now. The family's safe. I believe the house is OK, and I believe that the professionals are on it.

ZARRELLA: The Santiago Canyon fire has burned at least 25,000 acres, forced thousands from their homes. And, as difficult as it may be to comprehend, this may not be the only one of the California fires caused by arson.

So far, charges have been filed against at least five people suspected of arson. Wednesday one man was arrested in Los Angeles County after police say witnesses said they saw him lighting a fire on a hillside in the West Hills. That same day another man was arrested in San Bernardino County after police say he was spotted squatting on the side of the road setting a fire. A third man was arrested on charges of setting a fire, although police aren't saying where and when it allegedly happened.

Also, San Diego County officials say that a juvenile and another man were arrested after they were seen starting a fire that was quickly extinguished before it did damage to nearby buildings.


COOPER: John, do we know what kind of evidence that they actually found at the scene?

ZARRELLA: Well, you know, investigators tell us privately that they haven't found a whole heck of a lot of evidence out there. And police officials are saying, what evidence they did find, they are certainly not going to disclose to us at this point.

But what they do tell us is that determining these fires and their cause, a lot of times, is simply the process of elimination. There are no natural causes, so that leads them to believe that these fires are then human-caused -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right. John Zarrella, appreciate it. Thanks, John.

As sick and twisted as the idea of somebody setting a wildfire for kicks may be, fortunately, there is profile to search for and a pattern of evidence to trace, even in the ashes. It is a fascinating science.

Earlier today, Battalion Chief Doug Lannon of CAL FIRE showed me what, in general, investigators look for and how they try to solve a case like this.


BATTALION CHIEF DOUG LANNON, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION: We're going to walk over to this fence here. And one of the things that I might use to indicate the direction, as I look at vegetation, we have got vegetation that is burned on both sides.

So, I come up and I will just pick a -- pick a spot in the fence, and I will rub my finger on it. And I don't have a whole lot of soot there. There's a little bit. But I will go on the backside, and you have soot.


LANNON: And, so, that tells me that the fire came from that way, came through the fence here. And we -- and I will -- I will do it at a number of places.

Let's just use a different finger and do it on this side, a little bit, just a little bit of soot. But, on the backside of that, see what I mean? So -- and you also have a similar on the back end of this fence post, and we will have some soot on the backside of that, too.

Sometimes, I will look at areas like this. Now, this bend, they make fence -- fence poles out of aluminum now, so they do bend when kids climb over the fence polls. But, sometimes, if there is enough vegetation down at the base, if it heats up, it can actually cause this to kind of warp and move into the direction that the fire came from.

COOPER: Oh, really? So -- because, normally, I would think that this would be bending away from the fire, but this actually might bend into the fire?

LANNON: Yes. No, it actually bends in.

And, sometimes, when the fire -- and that's one of the -- the ways we can kind of get back to where the fire is less intense. Sometimes, the grass heads will -- as the fire kind of just moves in, the grass heads will just kind of fall and point in the direction that the fire came from, if it's a less intense fire.

OK, I will use sometimes non-native vegetation. I will use maybe something that is solid that was on the ground. And you will see that this pipe here, we have some major charring, and we have some charring that goes up both sides.

So -- and -- and, if we look back to where we figured the fire was coming from, it is kind of right in line. And, actually, you see the char pattern on both sides there?

COOPER: Mm-hmm.

LANNON: But there is more char from here to here. And, actually, the pipe has melted there. You look back up here, and it is somewhat protected.

That would also tell me that the fire came from this direction and damaged the pipe.

COOPER: More intense here melting.

LANNON: More intense there where it hit. And then it continued on. And the lee -- lee side of it there has very little damage.

COOPER: It's fascinating. It is amazing. It's really like a crime scene. It really tells a story.

LANNON: Yes. Exactly, yes. It's forensics.

COOPER: Right.

LANNON: You know, we -- we go to the similar schools for those kinds of things. And, you know, indicators and signs and things like that are real helpful for us to do our job.


COOPER: So, what investigators are trying to do right now is find the -- the point of origin of these fires. And, once they find that, they scour that area for any of the materials that were used to actually ignite the fire, whether it's matches or some sort of ignition device. And, often, those do survive the fire. And that provides key evidence.

Later on in this two-hour edition of 360, we are going to show you a very famous case where investigators were able to find the actual matches that -- that were used to start a wildfire. That's later on in this two-hour edition of 360. On the evacuation front tonight, there was some confusion today. People in the city of San Diego were allowed back in, but homes in the outlying areas -- this is San Diego County, we're talking about -- are still off-limits. As you have been seeing, when -- when they are allowed in, many of them will find that their homes are gone.

Now, the latest numbers put the total of homes destroyed at 1,600. That number is going to rise, no doubt about it, but 1,600 is a lot. There are 23 fires in all, 10 of them still not fully contained.

Here is the sort of big picture on the map. The largest fire starting on the Mexican border, where the Harris fire is, more than 80,000 acres, and, as we said, only 10 percent contained. The damage where I am tonight was caused by the Witch fire, massive fire spread and joined by the Poomacha fire, covering more than 230,000 acres. It is only 20 percent contained.

And, as we mentioned, up towards Los Angeles, in Orange County, the Santiago fire has burned more than 23,000 acres, is still spreading, only 30 percent contained. And the Ranch fire near Castaic has burned more than 55,000 acres. And that is 70 percent contained.

Well, how that map changes, of course, is going to depend on the weather. Millions of people here are following it like never before.

So is CNN's Chad Myers.

Chad, what are you seeing?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: I see now the winds becoming what I'm going to call confused.

For Monday, and Tuesday, and even most of yesterday, we saw streaks of smoke coming off the coast blowing into the ocean. Not streaking anymore. They're just kind of flowing around, because the air is not going all in one direction anymore, and even some of these winds, four, five, seven miles per hour, but they're swirling.

And that is going to cause the smoke to actually not blow offshore anymore, but to stay onshore, where you have to breathe it. This is a map from the Weather Service of where the smoke is going to be at noon tomorrow. And, in fact, it has already passed Palm Springs. It's on its way to Needles. It is on -- it's really almost on its way to Flagstaff.

It will make all the way up to Vegas. And we have air quality advisories for the valley, all the way up from Fresno, through Bakersfield, Merced, that valley through there. Some of the smoke tomorrow is going to make it up over the grapevine and down into the valley, and that is going to be a little bit of a problem.

I have heard a lot of people today do some second-guessing on whether you could fly on Saturday or Sunday or not, Anderson. But at Laguna Peak's wind on Sunday at 111 miles per hour, and Whitaker Peak at 108, there's no plane I have would put up in the air at those kind of wind speeds.

Plus, when you drop the water, it's not going to be anywhere near where you left -- it go, because the wind is going to blow it downwind at 108 miles per hour. So, there was a lot of things to think about, not just getting those planes in the air. But...

COOPER: Yes, those winds are strong, no doubt about it.

Chad, thanks.

This kind of natural disaster is not exclusive to California, of course. Here is the "Raw Data." Let's take a look at the numbers.

Since January, wildfires have consumed nearly two million acres of land in Idaho, more than any other state in America. California was second, with more than a million acres destroyed. That's followed by Nevada, Montana, and then Utah.

So, just ahead in this hour: Were they ready for this? Did they have enough state and federal money? We are going to investigate that angle on the story, as we take you on water drops in a Navy chopper, a fascinating look above the fire.

360, "In the Line of Fire," continues in a moment.



BILLE SCHLOTTE, LOST HOME IN FIRE: This used to be our car.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This was your car?


SCHLOTTE: It's gone.

You're not going to believe this.


COOPER: Hard for anyone to believe.

Shock and despair, as a lot of families are returning home to find they are just reduced to ash and rubble. Tonight, some are wondering if much of this could have been avoided. Did emergency officials sound the alarm early enough? Some of are asking those questions.

Could the aerial water assault have been brought in sooner? Others are asking those questions.

CNN's Randi Kaye went on a Navy water-dumping mission. Tonight, she's "Keeping Them Honest."

Take a look. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is what it looks like to fight a wildfire from the air. We are on board a Navy helicopter on a water drop mission over San Diego County. Dipping into the Sweetwater Reservoir, our crew will dump bucket after bucket, 320 gallons, more than a ton of water.

As skilled as our crew is, the question is, was the aerial assault strong enough and did it come soon enough? The National Guard told us CAL FIRE, the state agency that handles all aerial assets in a wildfire, did not request additional resources until late Sunday. And they didn't arrive until Monday. That is a full two days after the first fire broke out.

"Keeping Them Honest," we asked CAL FIRE about the delay in getting aircraft up in the air. A spokesman told us, the assets were there and the weather was the determining factor on when and how they were used.

Our pilot, Commander Lew Gray, says timing of the aerial assault couldn't be helped.

(on camera): Well, would you say that the state has made good use of those could be airborne to fight this?

COMMANDER LEW GRAY, U.S. NAVY PILOT: I think they have. I think, the first day, the fire was going so fast, that there was really not that much that could be done from the air.

KAYE (voice-over): Still, a spokesman from the U.S. Marines told us it had offered up helicopters as early as Sunday, but they weren't called to fly until two days later. "We were prepared to conduct missions before that," the spokesman said, "but we had not received any requests."

Jeff Bowman used to be San Diego's fire chief.

JEFF BOWMAN, FORMER SAN DIEGO FIRE CHIEF: The federal assets that are staged around the United States, in my opinion, should have been moved to the West Coast -- maybe they were, but I'm hearing they weren't -- to be prepared for this, so that, when the wind allowed them to fly, they could have been here and flying. My understanding is, some of them still are not here.

KAYE: CAL FIRE says it topically has 23 air tankers, 11 helicopters, and 14 spotter planes. With additions from state and federal agencies, it says it is now using 35 helicopters and 27 fixed- wing airplanes, weather permitting.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: We had 90 aircraft here in California. We had six additional aircraft from the federal government that can drop a huge load of water and chemicals and all this. But we could not use some of this equipment and some of those aircrafts because of the wind conditions. So, that was our big disadvantage. KAYE: Air crewman Douglas Kidd:

DOUGLAS KIDD, AIR CREWMAN: Everybody needs to understand that the people that go -- you can't just throw assets out there. Everybody has to be trained. Everybody has to be in communication with each other.

KAYE (on camera): Even after lessons learned from the last massive fire here, the Cedar fire back in 2003, CAL FIRE requires spotters in every aircraft, because radio frequencies between the military and local agencies on the ground are incompatible, a key reason why many aircraft may have been grounded.

BOWMAN: They didn't have enough people, allegedly, to give to the military to go up and be the spotters.

KAYE (voice-over): Lack of training may have caused further delay. Our pilot told us, the Marines haven't trained with CAL FIRE for water drops.

GRAY: The risk is, is that they are not going to do any good; they are going to get in an area where they don't need them, and they are not actually helping the people on the ground, because the beautiful thing about having the manager in the back is, he has fought fires on the ground, and he knows what they need.

KAYE: As each bucket filled and dropped on our mission, you couldn't help but wonder if we would even be up here five days later...

RON ROBERTS, SAN DIEGO COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS: Here facing one of the greatest fires ever in the history of this state, we have military helicopters that are -- that we are sending the pilots into war, but we wouldn't allow them to go drop water on a fire.

KAYE: ... had the response been more aggressive.


COOPER: They have tried to -- to address these problems in the past.

KAYE: They have.

Back in 2003, with the Cedar fire, the last massive fire here, they had what is called the blue-ribbon commission...

COOPER: Right.

KAYE: ... which made about 50 recommendations. And this was actually the governor's commission. A lot of people thought that things would change.

And, in fact, there were some improvements. The city of San Diego got one helicopter. The sheriff's department got two helicopters, which was a big deal. But the former fire chief of San Diego, who we talked to today, said he still needed money. He was brought in to fix things, and he didn't get it.

Now, granted, Mother Nature did play a role here, Anderson. I mean, the winds here...

COOPER: Right. And those winds were incredibly strong.

KAYE: Right. And they did have to wait for it to be safe for these guys to get up in the air. But, apparently, they did wait too long, critics certainly say, before they even called in the resources.

COOPER: All right. Randi, appreciate the reporting. Thank you.

KAYE: Mm-hmm.

COOPER: Along the places hardest hit by the wildfires is, almost ironically, a community called Lake Arrowhead, east of Los Angeles.

CNN's Ted Rowlands is following the situation there tonight.


TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What kind of person would stay when a fire like this is coming at you?

SCOTT GARRETT, REFUSED TO EVACUATE: You could hear it coming. You could see it coming. And the roar, it was sounding like a jet.

ROWLANDS: Scott Garrett is a self-described survivalist living in the San Bernardino Mountains. He stayed behind with his next-door neighbor as others evacuated, and says the fire was liking nothing he had ever experienced or even imagined.

GARRETT: And all the embers then started raining down. And it was like roofing and stuffing from furniture, and all this flaming debris was coming down.

ROWLANDS: Garrett says he and his neighbor used simple garden hoses, buckets filled with water and shovels throwing dirt, to fight the flames, and they saved several homes. He says they battled for more than 12 hours.

(on camera): You could have been killed.

GARRETT: No, no.

ROWLANDS (voice-over): Garrett says he and his neighbor had an exit plan and could have escaped at the last second, saying they had been planning this scenario for two years. Dozens of people around him did evacuate and ended up losing their homes.

Fire officials say what Garrett and his neighbor did was foolish and that they absolutely could have been killed. A downed power line, a wind shift, even an ember can easily kill or injure. After going through it, even Garrett acknowledges staying behind was more dangerous than he thought.

(on camera): Would you advise other people to do what you did?

GARRETT: Absolutely not. No.


COOPER: Ted, I know there were more than 10,000 still evacuated in the Lake Arrowhead area. What is the situation there tonight?

ROWLANDS: Well, Anderson, unlike in San Diego, the conditions up here are so bad and potentially dangerous that these folks, who have been evacuated now for a few days, have been told they probably will have to stay away from their homes, even if their homes survive, for at least another week.

The fire is still raging here. We have two fires. One is 40 percent contained, but the other is only 10 percent contained. They did make a lot of progress today. Tomorrow will be pivotal. They are hoping that Mother Nature will continue to help them out. Conditions were perfect day. They dropped all day long. They are hoping the same happens tomorrow, and they can really make a major dent, so that they can get to picking up these power lines and making it safe, so that people can get back here.

COOPER: Yes, a lot of work to be done. Ted, thanks.

It is really incredible, when you think about how big the task is for firefighters here and all across Southern California. Many of them have been working nonstop for days, using all their might, getting very little sleep. We are going to talk to some firefighters ahead -- after this break.



BUSH: Really, it's important for me to come out here and see firsthand the situation. And there's no question a lot of people are suffering. And there's no question there's been terrible losses.

I also am out here to make sure these firefighters behind me and the first-responders know how much I appreciate and how much the country appreciates their courage and bravery.


COOPER: Well, we touched on it earlier. Even as firefighters begin getting a handle on these fires, and people go back into what were previously no-go zones, they are making some horrible and heartbreaking discoveries.

CNN's Brian Todd joins us by phone right now with one such story and four lives lost.

Brian, where are you, and what are you -- what are you seeing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, we are near Barrett Junction, California, right near the California-Mexico border. It's about an hour southeast of San Diego.

We just came from (AUDIO GAP) area. There were four bodies discovered here by the Border Patrol at about 3:30 p.m. local, 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. The bodies are still in the canyon. We came upon the scene just as the sun was getting ready to go down. We saw them and saw the rescue teams -- the recovery teams, rather, going in and examining them.

But it's a very -- it's a fairly deep canon. It's very jagged terrain down there. The recovery teams and the medical examiners had trouble getting down there. And they are still there, trying to figure out how -- you know, basically, how to examine the bodies and how to get them out.

But we can tell you is, four bodies were found. The gender of these four is unclear right now. We got initial reports that they are three men and a woman. But the Border Patrol agent who we spoke to couldn't confirm that. At least two of the bodies are severely burned. And they say that they believe right now that these are related to the fires.

COOPER: There had been a report that these four may have been illegal immigrants who were crossing over. Is that -- is that confirmed, or is that not known at this point?

TODD: It not known at this point, Anderson. We pressed them pretty hard on that, considering how close we are to the border. And this place is incredibly remote. And these people were in this canyon. It is fairly deep.

We are not clear if they were stationary or on the move. But they just -- they just can't tell us whether these were border- crossers or not. At least two of these bodies may not even be identifiable at this point.

COOPER: And are they -- you said they are still there. Do you know how long they intend to -- to keep them there, or when -- at what point does it no longer become an investigation? At what point does it just become a recovery issue?

TODD: They are still there.

And since this -- it turned dark when we -- when we were here, it got pretty much pitch black down there. And they have, you know, kind of thrown some lights on the place, but it is very hard to traverse down there. And I asked them how long it would be. They said they may have to wait until morning before they go down and actually pull them out.

They may work through the night. They weren't sure. They were still trying to figure that out. They were also considering bringing in helicopters for the job.

COOPER: All right, Brian Todd reporting. Appreciate it, Brian. Thanks. Close to half-a-million acres of Southern California have burned this week. It has been a grueling, nonstop battle for thousands of firefighters. Tonight, they are still trying to contain 10 major fires.

Joining me now are Fire Chief Tim Reel and Captain Dane Knight, both of the El Centro Fire Department. They're working the Witch Fire.

You are not With El Centro, though. You are with DOD.


COOPER: Federal Fire?


COOPER: What has it been like? What has the toughest part been like for the last couple days?

KNIGHT: The toughest part was probably our first nation. We went in to Ramona with the high winds, and trying to keep the -- the structures from catching fire.

COOPER: One of the firefighters I was talking to said they can't -- they couldn't be as offensive as they would like against the body of the fires. So basically you're on defense?

KNIGHT: Absolutely. We just had embers and flames going everywhere. And there's a lot of times you just sit there and wonder if it was a fruitless thing that we were doing because it just was overtaking it so much.

COOPER: What kind of -- I mean, what kind of sleep have you guys been getting?

REEL: Well, none the first night. And then we kind of gradually increased our sleep from about three to six and maybe seven last night.

COOPER: I talked to some crews who have been on the line 30 -- 30 plus hours.

KNIGHT: It all depends on what mission that they're -- they put out to us at the time. And what they need from us.

COOPER: What is the situation now? I mean, how is it? Today, it was obviously a lot better than it was Sunday, and each day has gotten better and better. But it's still -- we're still battling out there?

KNIGHT: Oh, yes. That would be more of a question for you.

REEL: Yes. It depends upon where your assignment is. Like Dan said and you know, today we're kind of in a recovery mode. Getting caught up on our rest. COOPER: Right. What -- what do you want people to realize about what you guys do? I mean, everyone -- everyone I've talked to here has been so, speaking so, you know, favorably about what you guys have done. I don't think people really understand, though, how tough the job is?

KNIGHT: It's really tough. But it's so vast. And that's the one thing I don't think a lot of people can grasp while they're watching the TV. We're just a small portion of what's really going on all the way around. And it goes all the way down to the civilians, as in even handing out the food, bringing us water. Giving us shelter when we need shelter. Bedding us down when we need some place to sleep. It goes all the way to civilians and whatnot.

COOPER: When you hear that two of these fires up north might have been deliberately set, what goes through your mind? That's got to just infuriate you.

KNIGHT: You can't think about it like that because then you start to get too emotional about it, and then it kind of takes away from the job. You just have a job that you have to do and go out and do it.

COOPER: Well, we appreciate what you're doing. Some remarkable work. Thank you very much.

Thanks. Thanks so much.

For the residents who are able to go home, today was the day they anticipated and feared. Just ahead we're going to join one family as they see what's left of their house.

Plus, did state regulations prevent help from getting to these fires? "Keeping Them Honest", next on 360.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hopefully, this is what the house is going to look like in about an hour.

Oh, God, help me. There it is, right around some other homes. Oh, man, it looks like it's coming over here to the right. Oh, shoot. Oh, shoot.


COOPER: Decisions have to be made by a lot of people whether to leave or to stay.

As we mentioned earlier, a huge wildfire swept through the San Diego exactly four years ago. When it was over, people hear swore they were going to be ready the next time. They held meetings. There were plans. Well, tonight, we're "Keeping Them Honest". Joe Johns discovered that, when the fires broke out this time, some big parts of the emergency response effort were grounded.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the wildfires started late Saturday night, the military was ready with 19 firefighting helicopters on the tarmac in Southern California. They sat there for three crucial days. Why?

According to members of Congress from California, it's because state regulations required a spotter from the state forest service to go along for the ride. And the spotters were obviously busy.

It wasn't until Tuesday night that members of Congress negotiated a waiver of state regulations.

REP. BRIAN BILBRAY (R), CALIFORNIA: A couple phone calls were made through the boss. And he was reminded that it would be very embarrassing to try to explain to people why homes burned while helicopters sat on the ground.

JOHNS: It wasn't the only problem. Two massive C-130 firefighting planes also sat idle because they didn't have the right tanks.

On balance, the aircraft might not have had much affect, because the powerful winds earlier in the week could have kept fire retardant from hitting its mark.

But "Keeping Them Honest", other issues are emerging. The head of a blue ribbon commission, set up in the aftermath of the devastating 2003 fires, says the state failed to upgrade its helicopters.

BILL CAMPBELL, CHAIRMAN, BLUE RIBBON COMMISSION: The helicopters we're using are, generally speaking, from the Vietnam War. And of course that was over 30 years ago. So, we recommend that we increase our aircraft fleet. Not only the helicopters, but also the fixed wing aircraft.

JOHNS: But, he says, the state didn't have enough money. Still, Campbell says the state has made major life-saving improvements over the years, but even more problems remain.

For example, the commission recommended resolving the conflict between environmentalists and the public safety need to clear out dead wood in order to protect life and property.

CAMPBELL: Nothing happened on that. And as a result, we have -- we failed to clean brush. We failed to cut down dead trees. And as a result, the underbrush and that growth just feeds the destruction of the homes and of trees.

JOHNS: The bottom line: California is not as prepared as it should be to fight a growing threat from wildfires. Nor is the nation.

The Government Accountability Office has been trying to get the Bush administration to set up a national system to identify the biggest fire risk and allocate resources accordingly. But so far, it hasn't been done.

ROBIN NAZZARO, GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE: Congress has appropriated increased funds throughout the years to this problem. The problem is, there's not enough money or not enough resources to deal with all of the problems immediately. So that's where we feel that somehow there needs to be a systemic approach.

JOHNS: There's a lot of evidence that the number and severity of wildfires is growing, and a lot of evidence that government's response at all levels is not keeping pace.

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: Well, for those who are allowed to return home, many are finding the neighborhoods look more like charred ghost towns.

The Jeffcoats was out of town when the fires broke out, unable to grab any valuables or mementos. Even their dog was left behind. Well, today they came back to inspect what was left and agreed to take one of our cameras to videotape what they found. Take a look.


COOPER: Jay and Kendra Jeffcoat thought they were prepared for what they'd find when they returned to their Rancho Bernardo home. But nothing could prepare them for this.


COOPER: The Jeffcoats were away when the fires broke out, on a preseason ski vacation in Colorado with their son Ryan and daughter Casey. That's when they heard the devastating news that their home and nearly everything in it was gone.

K. JEFFCOAT: Look, this is one of our dogs.


K. JEFFCOAT: Oh, no!

J. JEFFCOAT: Here was -- he was a very. We met this guy in San Diego that does sand (ph) -- and this was of our old cocker spaniel.

COOPER: Today they got their chance to look at what was left of their prized possessions, collected over their 38 years together, and to reunite with their beloved dog, Trevor, rescued by a neighbor who risked her own life to make sure he was safe.

J. JEFFCOAT: Can't reach her on her phone. Finally, I reached her on her cell phone, and she says, "I was -- I didn't know what to do. Your whole palm tree was bursting out in flame. So -- but I ran in the house anyway. Opened the door, got Trevor out, and took him to the coast."

COOPER: The Jeffcoats weren't the only visitors to this street today. President Bush came here and visited their home with the governor and Senator Barbara Boxer. They talked about the fires, the destruction, the lives that needed to be rebuilt.

The president even offered to help replace a piece of memorabilia, a baseball signed by their son's namesake, Nolan Ryan. But when the president was gone, they were left with only their harsh reality.

K. JEFFCOAT: Just amazing that a baby grand piano melted.

COOPER: It all suddenly seemed so precious. A porcelain shoe. An old tin box.

J. JEFFCOAT: A little shoe. A little Dutch China shoe. A cup from Palomar College, where my wife was a professor for 10 or 12 years. Not going to hold -- not going to hold much Starbucks. But that's the kind of thing. Those memories of, you know, that you just -- you can't replace.

COOPER: The Jeffcoats say they will rebuild and they will get through this, as they have so many things, together.

J. JEFFCOAT: You know, it's like I don't want to leave.

K. JEFFCOAT: Oh, no, I don't, either, sweetie.

J. JEFFCOAT: This is our home.

K. JEFFCOAT: That's right.


COOPER: So much destruction here. It all starts to look the same. You see piles of it, like you see behind me. But of course, each plot is different. Each home is unique for the people who live there. It is very hard to imagine. We've seen so many heart-breaking homecomings like that one with the Jeffcoats (ph) today.

Straight ahead tonight, how the fires here are affecting politics back east. "Raw Politics" next.


COOPER: What's happening here ought to have nothing to do with politics or the partisan blame game, but again, in such a perfect world there would be no fires here, either. But there are, and there's plenty of politics, as well, "Raw Politics". With that, here's Tom Foreman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, the California fires are making heat all the way out here in Washington, where Republicans are accusing Democrats of exploiting this tragedy.

(voice-over) As Southern California burns, some Republicans Congress members have rushed back to their districts there, and Democratic leaders say, good.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: That doesn't mean we don't continue with our work of the government.

FOREMAN: Without that extra opposition, the Dems pushed through their latest, more modest increase for that Children's Health Insurance Program. The vote was such that the missing Republicans would not have made a difference. But opponents still say the measure costs too much, and the president will veto again.

REP. GINNY BROWN-WAITE (R), FLORIDA: You can take horse manure and roll it in powdered sugar, and it doesn't mistake it a doughnut.

FOREMAN: President Bush toured the fire lines amid bipartisan praise for the government's response. Homeland security chief Michael Chertoff also getting props for remembering the lessons of Katrina.

But the biggest star: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even traditional critics approving of his efforts to bring resources and calm to the afflicted neighborhoods.

Some quick hits. The U.S. is launching the toughest sanctions against Iran since the hostage crisis, way back in the '70s, saying Iran supports terrorism, exports missiles and is trying to build a nuclear arsenal.

There are new revelations that the mob gave serious thought to killing Rudy Giuliani, back when he was a federal prosecutor in New York.

And Vice President Dick Cheney. We're not sure, but it certainly looks like he was nodding off during a cabinet meeting. Eyes closed. Head bowed. OK, well, he's back now.

(on camera) Well, maybe she was just praying for protection from all of the "Raw Politics" -- Anderson.


COOPER: Perhaps. Tom, thanks.

Get another dose of "Raw Politics" and the day's headlines with the 360 daily podcast. You don't need an iPod. You can watch it right on your computer: Or you can go to the iTunes store.

The helicopters still passing overhead. We're seeing a lot more aircraft in the air these days as the winds have died down. Trying to battle those flames from the air. Just ahead, how thousands of acres have become a crime scene. The latest on the arson suspicions, as well as the investigation.

But first, an ominous sight in the midst of the fire. Our "Shot of the Day". It's coming up next.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were flames coming up the hill. We have a very steep hill here, about three acres. And the flames were at the house within minutes. So we had less than five minutes to get out. We didn't even have time to put on shoes with we left.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was burning as we were leaving.


COOPER: So many families now are returning home in San Diego and the city to find their homes like this, completely destroyed. And you look down at the ground, you realize -- I mean, all of this stuff, this is all ash. You know, people go through here trying to find something, but often there's little to find. There's -- really, the recognizable thing in this house, that filing cabinet there.

It's -- it's hard to imagine that they'll be able to really find any of their possessions left in this house. This was where the -- I believe where the front door or perhaps the garage door. And you can see the car is just completely destroyed.

The power of these flames. The intensity of the heat is truly extraordinary. It's hard to imagine until you actually go up close to one of these fires. And it's really overpowering.

A lot more to talk about in -- as this 360 special, "In the Line of Fire", continues. But first, let's check in for the day's other headlines with Gary Tuchman in Atlanta -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, hello to you.

In other news tonight, the heads of the U.S. state and treasury departments today slapped new sanctions on Iran, cutting off key Iranian military and banking institutions from the American financial system.

It's Washington's attempt to add muscle to U.N. efforts to stop Iran's uranium enrichment program.

Iran says the sanctions won't make any difference.

New York City's medical examiner says dust from Ground Zero did not kill an emergency worker back in January 2006. The examiner says Police Detective James Zadroga's lung disease was caused by the misuse of medication.

Another recall of toys made in China. It includes Fisher-Price's Go Diego Go boats. And children's jewelry sold at dollar stores. They all have excessive lead paint.

Up in space, a history-making hug. Peggy Whitson, the female commander of the International Space Station, welcomed Pamela Melroy, the female commander of the Space Shuttle Discovery. It's the first time women have been in charge of both spacecraft.

Over the next few days, the shuttle crew will unload a new laboratory module and attach it to the space station. History in the heavens.

Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: That is amazing on the right there.

Time for "The Shot of the Day", Gary. This comes to us from our affiliate, KCAL. It's what some people call a fire-nado or a fire whirl. It's basically an intense tornado-like whirlwind that forms from a plume of hot air rising from a large fire. It can make the fire that much more dangerous. It is a scary thing for firefighters to see. That one in Silverado Canyon, California.

Want you to send us your "Shot" ideas. If you see some remarkable videos, tell us about it: We'll put some of your best clips on the air.

We've been getting some amazing I-Reports, too. On the radar tonight, more of those I-Report photos. We start off near our location here in Rancho Bernardo.

Naomi (ph) shows us how close the flames came to her house in Four South Ranch (ph). Nothing you want to see from your window there.

Jim took an amazing photo. A chopper fills up with water from Castaic Lake to dump in the flames. Takes a steady pilot to get that job done right.

And Kat (ph) spotted this message, "San Diego, think rain." A great idea. This region sure could use some rain.

You can go to, link to the blog or send us your e- mail through our Web site, if you want to weigh in on what you've been witnessing.

Just ahead tonight, suspicions of arson. How do you solve a crime when the evidence is hidden in tens of thousands of acres of scorched earth? A fascinating look inside the investigation, next on 360.


COOPER: Good evening again from Southern California.

Suspicion, sadness and hope tonight. The hope is on the fire lines. Crews making good progress. Thirteen fires now 100 percent contained. The massive Witch fire, 20 percent contained. That's compared to 10 percent yesterday. The Harris fire isn't getting better, but it's not getting any worse. It's holding at 10 percent containment.

There is hope, and there is suspicion, as well. Big rewards now being offered. A major investigation underway now into who set the Santiago fire in Orange County. We'll have the latest on that and other fires that authorities think may have been deliberately set.

And we have hope, too, in the sheer contrast between the response to this disaster and Hurricane Katrina. The president was on the ground today. California's governor has been seemingly everywhere, but there is sadness and serious questions.

Did fight -- did tight federal money leave Southern California dangerously unprepared? We'll investigate that tonight.

And there is sadness, as well. Six new deaths reported since last night, and thousands now discovering they have lost everything, even as their next-door neighbors find their property virtually untouched. Random mercy and savagery, as well, on the street where they live.

All that and more in the hour ahead, including a really wild ride on a Navy water-dumping mission. It is rough and risky but vital. The tough question is, were they sent in too late, and did the area have too few of those -- of those vehicles?

We're going to take a look at all that, but first, let's look at the big picture, what happened today. Take a look.


COOPER (voice-over): On the front lines of the disaster, a day of progress and pain.


COOPER: Charred, in ruins, much of Southern California is scorched to the ground, obliterated by the massive wildfires.

Officials suspect some were sparked by downed power lines and accidentally by construction workers. Others were intentionally set. Authorities have arrested at least five people on charges of arson, but there have been no arrests in the investigation into the Santiago fire. The case, however, is just getting started.