TOPICS > World

Winds Ease, Allowing Californians to Tackle Damaging Fires

October 24, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Once again, we begin our fires coverage with a report from NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET Los Angeles.

FIREFIGHTER: Right there. That’s a pretty graphic representation of what these firefighters are facing.

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: Wind-whipped and exhausted, firefighters watched and waited for the Santa Ana winds to die down today, a lull that could bring a respite from the blazes that have engulfed Southern California.

FIREFIGHTER: The fires are coming right close to the homes. Here you can kind of see it burning through some of that fuel right there.

JEFFREY KAYE: At least 18 active fires continue to burn, from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, on this, the fourth day of treacherous fires. Statewide, some 10,000 firefighters are battling the flames from the ground and the air.

By this afternoon, the fires had scorched some 426,000 acres. The blazes have been responsible for six deaths. At least 45 people have been injured, half that number firefighters.

MARVIN RAMIREZ, Cal Conservation Corps: We’ve been up for about 48 hours, all starting with the shift that we started when we drove down here, but not getting put on the line.

JEFFREY KAYE: In San Diego County, by far the hardest hit area, at least 1,200 homes have been destroyed. Officials expect that number to rise. Damage estimates here now top $1 billion.

The fires are still spreading, and thick blankets of acrid, black smoke hang heavy. This morning, Interstate 5, the major artery between Los Angeles and San Diego, was shut down, a result of a fire on the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine base that got out of control and burned some 3,000 acres.

KEN MATSUMOTO, Oceanside Fire Department: We have a fire that started in Camp Pendleton’s area that progressed westward because of the winds. And it caught the center divider on fire. And we’re just trying to control it right now and wait for additional resources to get here to extinguish the bulk of the fire.

JEFFREY KAYE: Hundreds of thousands of residents have fled their homes, the largest mass movement of people in California history.

VIVIAN HEIDE, Fire Victim: We’ve lived in our house since 1973, and I can’t imagine that it’s not going to be there. But then, the longer it goes, the more you think, “You know, we’ll pitch a tent.”

JEFFREY KAYE: Thousands of people have moved into evacuation centers, but many are being allowed to return home. County officials have issued a plea to residents to conserve resources.

While much of San Diego is dealing with a still unfolding crisis, some communities in this country are gradually tallying the damage and taking the first infant steps towards recovery. One of the hardest hit places is Rancho Bernardo, a bedroom community with a population of about 75,000. Officials say about 500 homes were completely destroyed here; another 65 have suffered damage.

As is often the case when wind-whipped fires sweep through suburbs, there seems to be no pattern to the destruction. Wrecked homes are side by side with houses that don’t have singe marks on them.

The owners of most of these destroyed homes haven’t laid eyes on them. That’s because Rancho Bernardo, like communities throughout San Diego, is under a mandatory evacuation order. As of this morning, it was enforced by National Guard personnel, as well as by local police.

SGT. JOE DELIAGA, San Diego Police Department: We don’t want to allow residents in here where we may have to force them back out. We’re fortunate Monday we got everybody out without loss of life. We don’t want to take a chance of allowing people in and forcing them back out.

JEFFREY KAYE: At a road block, anxious residents and business owners waited for the “all clear.” Mike Roberts was here with his wife and two daughters.

MIKE ROBERTS, Fire Victim: Just kind of hop-scotched over there. Mine’s standing. My neighbor’s standing. But the one across the street is gone, so there’s no logic whatsoever.

JEFFREY KAYE: Among the first allowed back into Rancho Bernardo were crews who cleared brush and debris. Inspectors from utility companies surveyed the damage.

TED KNOWD, San Diego Gas and Electric: It’s pretty wiped out. Obviously we’ve got poles down here. The fire moved through here really quickly. Obviously, you’ve got several homes burned down. But just trying to get an assessment of how much damage to the electrical system we have and what it’s going to take to get it restored.

JEFFREY KAYE: At the local recreation center, federal, state and local officials gathered to plan the opening of an emergency center that will provide assistance to residents when they return. Helen Phillips is the director of the recreation center. What is going on here?

HELEN PHILLIPS, Recreation Center Director: We are now changed from a recreation center into a command center. And we will be serving FEMA, Red Cross. We will be setting up here to serve all of the folks that have lost their homes.

JEFFREY KAYE: One island of relative normalcy in this disaster area is Casa de Las Campanas, an upscale retirement community.

JILL SORENSON, Casa de Las Campanas Retirement Community: We’re continuing to provide three meals a day. It’s not our normal menu, of course, but we have been able to get medical and food delivered, medical supplies and food. And we are providing three meals a day and taking care of everybody’s needs at this point.

JEFFREY KAYE: While the retirement home evacuated people in need of skilled care and those with dementia, other residents have stayed here, despite the fact that power is off in their apartments.

To the north of this area, firefighters struggle to contain a blaze in Lake Arrowhead, east of Los Angeles. It has destroyed hundreds of homes in this mountain resort.

But elsewhere in Southern California, there has been progress. The blazes in Los Angeles County are contained. But successes aside, there have been some criticisms of the firefighting response. Some local officials have said the state was unprepared.

Ruben Grijalva, the state’s top firefighter, rejects those critiques.

RUBEN GRIJALVA, Director, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: The governor directed me and gave me every asset, every resource that we needed to combat fires. The key here is, when you have 60-mile-an-hour winds and gusts of to 80- to 85-mile-an-hour winds, no amount of resources are going to help that.

You know, we risk the lives of our firefighters when — I don’t care how many of them you have — when you have those kinds of conditions. The key to reducing the threat of wildfire in California is land use planning, prevention, and getting ahead of the curve.

JEFFREY KAYE: President Bush has now signed a major disaster declaration for California, which will provide more federal aid, including long-term recovery funding. The president plans to head to Southern California tomorrow to assess the damage firsthand.

Weather conditions improved

Ron Roberts
Chair, San Diego County Supervisors
The weather conditions have improved dramatically. Instead of the very, very fast-moving winds that were coming out of the east, we've changed to more of a coastal flow and more of our normal weather pattern.

JIM LEHRER: For the latest on what's happening in the San Diego area tonight, we check in again with Ron Roberts, chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. I spoke with him a short while ago.

Mr. Roberts, welcome.

RON ROBERTS, Chair, San Diego County Board of Supervisors: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Could you give me an overview of where things stand at the moment there in San Diego County?

RON ROBERTS: Well, as I'm talking to you now, the weather conditions have improved dramatically. Instead of the very, very fast-moving winds that were coming out of the east, we've changed to more of a coastal flow and more of our normal weather pattern.

Having said that, it's in some areas creating a slightly different problem for us, in that the winds are driving the flames in a different direction now and are still very dangerous. So we still have a very unstable situation here. We have now seen over 300,000 acres burn.

JIM LEHRER: How many fires do you still have burning?

RON ROBERTS: My guess is that there are at least the remnants of a half a dozen fires that are going on now.

JIM LEHRER: And they have yet to be contained, right? I mean, they're still burning as we speak?

RON ROBERTS: That's exactly right. But what we're seeing, though, the lack of the intense winds is helping us in some of the areas where the fires are less threatening, in terms of destroying houses or being a threat to people.

JIM LEHRER: Can you give us a feel for the effort to stop the fires now? What's happening now, in terms of what's on the ground, in terms of people, equipment, et cetera?

RON ROBERTS: Yes. What has happened -- and today, as it has over the past few days, the effort has built. There are thousands, literally, of firefighters who are manning the front lines.

But the aerial resources have improved considerably. The number of helicopters, the number of fixed-wing aircraft that are up in the air have improved by a significant degree even over the last couple of days.

JIM LEHRER: And they're dropping water and other materials to stop the fire, right?

RON ROBERTS: That's exactly right, water and fire retardant, primarily.

Nearly 500,000 evacuated

Ron Roberts
Chair, San Diego County Supervisors
The estimate that we had yesterday was in excess of $1 billion, and I have absolutely no doubt that number will be exceeded.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you still have how many people in shelters away from their homes?

RON ROBERTS: Probably a good estimate right now would be somewhere near 500,000 people who have been evacuated from their homes. Of those, we have 43 shelters that are currently open, but many of the people there, some are staying with friends, some are staying at hotels, so people are scattered throughout the entire community, not just in the shelters.

JIM LEHRER: As we speak now, Mr. Roberts, what is the critical need for you and your folks in San Diego County?

RON ROBERTS: Well, you know, the thing that we need the most is something only God can provide, and that's a break in this weather. What we would like to see is low or no winds, and a temperature drop considerably, and the humidity go up. And those are things that appear to be predicted for tomorrow.

The other thing is that we're faced with, also, the fire itself has caused some extreme complications with respect to our electrical services, our electrical supply. And we're hopeful that we can get the major lines restored that serve this community. We're on a very, very thin margin right now, in terms of our electrical supplies.

JIM LEHRER: Now, there was a report today that officials there in your county were estimating the damage amount is going to total over $1 billion. Can you confirm that?

RON ROBERTS: Yes. Clearly, the estimate that we had yesterday was in excess of $1 billion, and I have absolutely no doubt that number will be exceeded.

JIM LEHRER: And this is the result of burned homes and other structures and infrastructure damage, as well?

RON ROBERTS: Yes, that's exactly right. As I speak to you, we know that we have lost at least 1,200 to 1,300 homes. We have major infrastructure damage, and a number of businesses have also been destroyed. And that number would easily be in the hundreds.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the schools are still closed, is that correct?

RON ROBERTS: The schools are closed until Monday of this coming week.

JIM LEHRER: What about other normal functions of the city? What's the state of play?

RON ROBERTS: The courts are closed. There's a number of businesses that have closed, but those are the most significant parts. The government offices in some areas have had to close because the areas themselves had to be evacuated.

So we're seeing throughout the community, in some areas, they're completely shut down, not just the residential area, but all of the commercial activities that would take place, also.

Federal government offers support

Ron Roberts
Chair, San Diego County Supervisors
I think we're going to switch from federal assistance in fighting fires to federal assistance in providing for the aid that we need.

JIM LEHRER: What are the signs thus far of federal assistance to your county?

RON ROBERTS: Well, we have had -- all of our congressional delegation has returned to San Diego. And just a few minutes ago, we toured some of the areas with Senator Barbara Boxer.

And we had received the good news earlier today that the president had declared a state of disaster, which enables our individuals and our families to access federal services. I will later today, in fact, join with the mayor of San Diego. We're going to have a joint assistance center that will be opening up in one of our very heavily damaged areas.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any specific thing that you want the federal government to do and do quickly?

RON ROBERTS: Well, I think we're going to switch from federal assistance in fighting fires to federal assistance in providing for the aid that we need. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, has been very, very helpful. They will be part of our assistance centers as we open them.

We're slated to open five of these throughout San Diego County to serve the many residents who are going to need, not just federal services, but all of the services, so that we can begin to rebuild immediately.

Fire resources stretched thin

Ron Roberts
Chair, San Diego County Supervisors
In the first couple days of this fire, we weren't able to use our aerial resources. The winds were too intense to use either the fixed-wing aircraft or the helicopters. That hurt us pretty severely.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Roberts, from your perspective of San Diego County, have there been any gaps at any governmental level that trouble you, things that didn't happen that should have happened, that could have made the situation better quicker?

RON ROBERTS: Well, I think the unfortunate thing is that we had a problem with fires throughout the state of California, and the resources were stretched very thin because of that. And I think it would be safe to say, if you asked any elected official anywhere in Southern California, they would probably have the same concern.

In the first couple days of this fire, we weren't able to use our aerial resources. The winds were too intense to use either the fixed-wing aircraft or the helicopters. That hurt us pretty severely. That wasn't so much a lack of having the equipment; it wasn't being able to use the equipment.

But as we saw that situation change, I think, if I would have one request, it would have been more support quicker, both on the ground and in the air.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Roberts, what's the San Diego state of mind at this moment?

RON ROBERTS: Well, I'll tell you, the people here have been terrific. Not only are the agencies all working together, but the average person here has been extremely generous in helping, volunteering time, donating supplies. There's been a willingness for people to help one another. I've seen evidence of people offering their homes up to total strangers because they didn't have a place to stay.

But there's just a very good spirit. If you were to tour the facilities where we have brought evacuated families, the conditions there are less than desirable. You want to be in your home; there's no question about it. But the attitudes and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And people are looking back to getting onto their feet and starting the rebuild process.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Roberts, thank you very much, and continued good luck.

RON ROBERTS: Thank you, Jim.