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California Wildfires Prompt Evacuations, Emergency Measures

October 22, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: The winds blew, the wildfires spread, and across Southern California hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes.

HELICOPTER PILOT: The wind’s pretty good, 30 or 40 knots…

JEFFREY KAYE: The brushfires, which flared up over the weekend, are being stoked by dry Santa Ana winds, some gusting as fast as 80 miles per hour. Combined with drought conditions, they are making it difficult for firefighters to contain the blazes.

TV NEWS REPORTER: Fire crews got into that house. You remember, if you saw those pictures. And it looked like they were going to save it…

JEFFREY KAYE: L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told reporters the conditions created a perfect storm.

ZEV YAROSLAVSKY, Los Angeles County Supervisor: The winds are erratic. They are unpredictable. There is no telling where the fires will move and when. So until the fire departments tell us that it is safe and that it is contained, you have to assume that, at any given moment, even where there’s no fire, that something could pop up in your neighborhood.

JEFFREY KAYE: By this afternoon, the fires had engulfed more than 100,000 acres, from Santa Barbara County, just north of Los Angeles, down to San Diego and the Mexican border.

FIREFIGHTER: It’s amazing. I mean, that fire overtook everything in a matter of hours.

JEFFREY KAYE: Two hundred and fifty thousand people were forced to evacuate in San Diego County, where fires encroached on homes and new blazes continued to flare up. In one neighborhood, firefighters were unable to stop the flames from spreading house to house. By this afternoon, one death had been reported in San Diego, and officials warned many more homes would be lost.

Jerry Sanders is the mayor of San Diego.

MAYOR JERRY SANDERS, San Diego: This is an extremely quick-moving fire, probably one like we’ve never seen before because of the strong winds and the heavy smoke. Because of that, we’re unable to use air assets, because they can’t get close enough, they can’t see, and it’s hazardous. For that reason, we’re trying to evacuate areas as quickly as we can ahead of the fire so that people will be out of that area by the time the fire comes through.

JEFFREY KAYE: San Diego Fire Chief Bill Metcalf also urged residents to heed evacuation warnings and said people staying behind were hindering firefighting efforts.

CHIEF BILL METCALF, San Diego Fire Department: We’ve been unable to do any suppression efforts, because in most cases the fire resources are being used or having to pull off and do rescues, rescues of people who, in most cases, were asked to evacuate and didn’t, didn’t evacuate at all or delayed until it was too late. And those folks who are making those decisions are actually stripping fire resources away from the fire suppression efforts where we might be able to slow this thing down. We expect the weather to continue for another couple of days, and there’s an awful lot of 0 percent-contained fire line out there.

JEFFREY KAYE: To the north in Malibu, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toured some of the gutted structures. He has declared a state of emergency in the seven affected counties. Malibu suffered some of the worst destruction, after embers blew across the Pacific Coast Highway and set coastal mansions ablaze.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: It was getting pretty crazy, and the smoke started coming in, and we just took off. And as we were coming up PCH right here, it jumped the highway and there was flames, so we had to ride through the flames.

JEFFREY KAYE: Hundreds of firefighters battling the fire in Malibu were unable to save two landmarks: the Malibu Presbyterian Church and this 10,000-square-foot castle owned by the daughter of a former Iranian oil minister.

Many residents were reminded of previous devastating fires that have swept through this community, the last major one in 2003. Today, many watched from their rooftops. Larry Larson said that he was prepared for any eventuality.

LARRY LARSON, Southern California Resident: I’m totally prepared. I’ve got 500 gallons of water. I’ve got pumps. I’ve got my own fire hydrant. I’ve got everything there is. My kids are here with me. They’ve got all the fire equipment. I even have foam, foam-a-duct. I have as much as probably on some of the fire engines.

JEFFREY KAYE: So you figure you’re not going anyplace, you’re staying here?

LARRY LARSON: Absolutely not. I didn’t go in ’93, didn’t go now.

JEFFREY KAYE: Many residents were not taking any chances. Robert Garlan left his house around noon, carrying his two cats.

ROBERT GARLAN, Southern California Resident: I think it’s more of a collective thing that we’re all leaving together, but actually nobody came by and said a mandatory evacuation.

JEFFREY KAYE: At many canyon and hilltop homes, firefighters stood guard to provide structure protection.

CHRIS ROWE, Captain, Long Beach Fire Department: Right now, we’ve been reassigned to structure protection here on Carbon Mesa. The fire did burn through here yesterday. They still have some hot spots. So in case of wind shifts, we’re looking for smokes and active fire that may begin to burn back up canyon towards us.

JEFFREY KAYE: So for right now, you’re essentially guarding this house?

CHRIS ROWE: Correct, yes, we’ve been assigned this structure here in Carbon Mesa. We will remain here until released by our division supervisor.

JEFFREY KAYE: Officials believe some of the fires may have been started by downed power lines, but there was confirmation a blaze in Orange County to the south of Los Angeles was arson.

A perfect storm for Malibu

Jeffrey Kaye
KCET
You've got what one county official, as I said, called a perfect storm. You've got the drought; you've got very low humidity; you've got the winds.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff spoke with Jeffrey Kaye a short while ago while he was in Malibu.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Kaye, tell us exactly where you are and what the situation is there.

JEFFREY KAYE: Well, I'm in Malibu, just outside what used to be the Malibu Presbyterian Church that was burned down. On a normal day, this would be idyllic, overlooking the ocean, but today this would be bustling. There's a preschool here. There's no one around.

There are helicopters picking up water from the ocean to go drop on the fires that are close by here. The streets of Malibu are deserted, normally crowded, busy streets. Pacific Coast Highway, which is generally jammed, didn't have -- the only vehicles on it were news vehicles and fire engines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey, we are reading some accounts this is the driest year on record in Southern California. How much do they think the drought is contributing to this, as well as the strong winds?

JEFFREY KAYE: Well, you've got what one county official, as I said, called a perfect storm. You've got the drought; you've got very low humidity; you've got the winds. And, of course, the problem with resources that are really a tremendous amount that would be needed to fight fires that are all over California.

So to what extent did the drought contribute, did the dryness contribute, did the winds contribute? It's all, as I say a supervisor told me, a perfect storm.

Concern over firefighting resources

Jeffrey Kaye
KCET
But the big concern is the unpredictability. These winds are extremely erratic. And firefighters are just standing around in some places just not knowing which way the winds are going to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey, you were saying to me just a moment ago, we were talking about the strain on resources. Is there a concern? Do they have enough firefighters? Do they have enough firefighting equipment?

JEFFREY KAYE: There was definitely a very real concern last night. I heard a story about a fire captain, a fire chief of L.A. County who decided that he needed 1,200 firefighters to fight the fires in Los Angeles but could get only 600. Normally, the adjacent communities and states share resources, but everyone is off fighting their fires.

And I was told that he was, quote, "sweating bullets" as the fires sparked and he had to make a decision as to which of his favorite children he would try to protect, one fire in north of the county, another fire here in Malibu, both very serious.

I'm told that the resource situation is not as bad now as it was, particularly with mutual aid coming in from around the area and surrounding states. There's assistance coming in from Nevada, from Oregon.

But the big concern is the unpredictability. These winds are extremely erratic. And firefighters are just standing around in some places just not knowing which way the winds are going to go and having to run off, as sparks fly and fires crop up in unanticipated places.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jeff, any discussion of availability or lack of it of the water they obviously need to put out these fires?

JEFFREY KAYE: Well, at least in the San Diego and Malibu areas, we're right next to the ocean, so water availability is not a problem. They can just go dip their buckets in the ocean and take as much water as they need. I'm not sure that's the case in the inland areas.

Prepared, well-protected residents

Jeffrey Kaye
KCET
But the fire officials and elected officials and others are stressing to people they need to be on the lookout. They need to follow directions and evacuate when ordered to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are people dealing with this, Jeffrey? You've been out all day long. How much worry? How much anxiety?

JEFFREY KAYE: Well, the people we've run across, particularly here in Malibu, and particularly the old-timers, are very philosophical about this. Many of them have been through this multiple times. They're used to being evacuated, either mandatory evacuations, or used to having to fight fires with garden hoses, if that need be.

Many of them are also well-prepared. Having gone through this so many times, many of the homes, the newer homes, are very well-protected. So as I say, a lot of the old-timers in particular are philosophical. And they know the next natural disaster they're going to have to contend with is when the rains, if they do come -- and they generally do -- come in the winter, in February and March.

And that would be a time to watch out for the inevitable floods, because the grasses, the shrubbery, the trees holding back the soils will not be there in place, and so they're going to have a new set of problems on their hands. This is very cyclical.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So when people are asked to evacuate, are they saying they're going to tough it out? Are they cooperating? What are they doing?

JEFFREY KAYE: Yes to both of the above. Many of the people here are just saying, "Never mind, I know what I'm doing. I can fight this thing." And others are just going along to make sure that they're obeying the orders to evacuate.

But the fire officials and elected officials and others are stressing to people they need to be on the lookout. They need to follow directions and evacuate when ordered to. But, of course, when you've got people who vow that they can take care of themselves, there's not much anyone can do in a situation like that.

Past California fires

Jeffrey Kaye
KCET
As someone put it, Southern California, California is on fire. Other than that, I think if you live here, you get used to these kinds of disasters season in and season out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Jeffrey, you live in the Los Angeles area. You've seen fires year after year. Does this situation have a different feel to it? How would you compare it?

JEFFREY KAYE: Well, the difference, I guess, is they are all over the place. As someone put it, Southern California, California is on fire. Other than that, I think if you live here, you get used to these kinds of disasters season in and season out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Jeffrey Kaye, we thank you for reporting for us from Malibu in the Los Angeles area. Thanks very much.

JEFFREY KAYE: You're very welcome, Judy.