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GWEN IFILL: Now Ray Suarez has our report on the California fires.
RAY SUAREZ: The ten major fires across Southern California have torched million-dollar homes like these. Many residents had to flee in a hurry.
WOMAN: I’ve lost all my family photos, my daughter’s dance recital tapes – I mean, everything was in the house. I have the clothes on my back, that’s it.
RAY SUAREZ: In all, the fires cover 500 square miles, about half the size of Rhode Island. The infernos follow a hot, dry summer and spread in large part on the Santa Ana Winds: An occasional fall and winter phenomenon that carries dry, desert air to the West Coast.
SPOKESMAN: It was branches, I would say six to eight to ten feet, just big, just flying overhead, just with the winds that the fire itself will cause. It was incredible. It was something I’ve never seen in 20 years on the job, and I’ve been through many brushfires.
RAY SUAREZ: The largest, and deadliest, is the Cedar Fire in San Diego County. It covers 100,00 acres and has taken at least eight lives. The cedar blaze, believed to have been started by a lost hunter seeking help, has destroyed more than 250 homes.
MAN: I was over saving my mom’s house.
WOMAN: And he did save it.
MAN: I did save it. But mine went.
RAY SUAREZ: Outgoing Gov. Gray Davis, who toured the fires today, has asked Washington for federal resources.
GOV. GRAY DAVIS: This is a terrible situation, these are the worst fires we’ve faced in California in ten years, and I want you to know that I’m mobilizing every available resource to combat these fires.
RAY SUAREZ: Of the 40,000 evacuees, many fled to the nearby Qualcomm Stadium, the home field for the NFL San Diego Chargers. Tonight’s Chargers game was moved east to Tempe, Ariz. To the north and east in San Bernardino County, two large fires merged into one over the weekend. That created a line of flames 35 miles long, covering the skies with smoke and ash. Arson is suspected in this case, and authorities have taken two men into custody. There’s another big fire in L.A.’s northern suburb of Simi Valley. While many evacuated their homes, some are still there using garden hoses to fight nature.
Firefighters say the key to containment will be the seasonal Santa Ana Winds, which abated somewhat today. Still, the largest of the fires range from 0 percent contained to just 25 percent contained. And San Diego’s fire chief is planning for a rough week.
JEFF BOWMAN: We look for this to be a least a five-day event from this day forward. We call containment of a fire, that term is thrown around very casually. Many people think this fire looks contained. It is absolutely not. Containment of a brush fire means we have a perimeter line around the entire fire. We do not have that. Control of the fire is after we have it significantly extinguished. We’re not even close to that yet.
RAY SUAREZ: Tomorrow’s forecast is for diminished winds as well, though authorities cautioned it could whip up in an instant.
RAY SUAREZ: For the latest on the fires, I’m joined by Mayor Dick Murphy of San Diego. Mayor, welcome.
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: I understand in the last couple hours you’ve been out to the affected areas. What did you see?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: We saw total devastation — 150 homes burned to the ground. It looked like a war zone. It is the worst devastation that I personally have ever seen.
RAY SUAREZ: What are the losses so far in your area, both in people and property?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: In the city of San Diego, we lost a total of 160 homes, but no lives. In the San Diego County area altogether we’re at 400 to 500 homes and at least eight reported fatalities.
RAY SUAREZ: Is this — the fire so extensive that it’s affecting life even far away from where the flames are actually burning? If you want to move around San Diego County, is it a tough thing to do today?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: We have basically shut down the county. We’ve asked employers to keep employees at home. The schools are closed. Several of the freeways are shut down. Everything is at a dead stop. The air quality is horrible, you can imagine with such extensive fires, it’s not even healthy to be outside.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’ve asked some people to leave their homes and you’ve asked some people to stay indoors. Are both groups cooperating?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: They have. We’ve asked between ten and fifteen thousand people in the city to evacuate their homes and the rest of them to stay in their homes. People cooperate in San Diego, this is a city of wonderful people. The police department had no problem in the city gaining the cooperation of our citizens.
RAY SUAREZ: Are there areas that are now really kind of on the knife end and need a little luck, a break from the weather, or else they may go too?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: I think that’s correct. The fire is not contained, because the Santa Ana winds have died down, the fire is not blazing out of control the same way it was yesterday. But if those Santa Ana winds develop again tonight or tomorrow, there will be grave danger still for the people of San Diego.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you have enough water for your firefighters?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: You know, one of the first things I did yesterday as mayor is to ask the people of San Diego to conserve water, to turn off the irrigation systems, to use only minimum amounts of water. That allowed us to keep the water pressure high enough to fight the fires.
RAY SUAREZ: What about the fire crews themselves, with so many fires burning in so many different places, aren’t the forces that you would have been depending on from neighboring jurisdictions so involved in their own problems that you’re going to have some manpower problems?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: Our firefighter teams were stretched very thin yesterday. What happened is we had sent, San Diego had sent firefighters up to San Bernardino to help with the fires that started there earlier, so when the fires came into our region we not only were kind of overwhelmed by the fire, but were short staffed what we would normally have. There were situations where houses burned that we just simply could not stop because of inadequate resources.
RAY SUAREZ: So are there some potential problems waiting if this current weather situation lasts for 24-72 hours with just the sheer supply of people to fight on the lines?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: No, I think we’re in much better shape today. The governor has sent a number of fire engines, a number of firefighters into San Diego County. He has obtained support from both Arizona and Nevada, they are sending fire trucks and firefighters. If this fire flares up again, we’ll be ready.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s look down the road at the forecast. I guess you’re getting updates all the time. Is there anything that’s hopeful about tomorrow and the day after?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: I think the weather forecast is promising, the promise is that the winds will die down. And perhaps by at least Wednesday the winds will shift the other direction, so when the wind come from the West off the ocean they provide a marine layer that cools the area, provides high humidity and will be an enormous help. So we have our fingers crossed that the weather forecasters this time are correct.
RAY SUAREZ: Why are things so bad, did you have an unusually dry summer in San Diego County?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: First of all, San Diego is a desert. It rains in the spring. The brush grows, it dries out in the summer, every fall we have a fire risk in Southern California. The brush was even more extensive this year, the fire hit so quickly, right in the middle of high Santa Ana winds blowing from the east, at a high temperature, low humidity, just all of the things came together to cause what is really the worst fire in San Diego County in at least three decades.
RAY SUAREZ: How many people do you have out of their homes now?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: Between 10,000 and 15,000 people have been evacuated. Many are staying with friends, but we have evacuation centers, the governor and I were just out this afternoon talking with evacuees that are at one of the high schools in the area. It’s an extreme hardship on the evacuees who are unsettled about the status of their homes. But it’s amazing the number of people that are there volunteering and helping and donating. That’s about the only silver lining to a fire crisis like this.
RAY SUAREZ: They must be pretty anxious as well about getting to see what’s happened to their homes?
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: They’re anxious to find out what’s happened to their homes. The funny thing about a fire is it will go down the street and it will burn nine homes and leave one standing. So it’s very unpredictable, and people don’t know for sure what has happened to their home and their possessions.
RAY SUAREZ: Mayor Dick Murphy of San Diego, good luck, mayor.
MAYOR DICK MURPHY: Thank you very much.