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Wildfires in California; Al Qaeda's New Tactic

Aired May 15, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: red hot danger, as a wildfire spirals out of control, flames shooting into the air. We're live at the scene of the most threatening blaze in Southern California. It's closing in on houses and businesses right now.

Thousands of people are afraid this will happen to them, their homes reduced to smoldering ashes. We're talking to families who have lost almost everything in this terrifying fire disaster.

And we're also learning about another close call in midair, two planes at risk of colliding over the Pacific Ocean. We're looking into what went wrong.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow, there it is right there. There it is right there (EXPLETIVE DELETED) Oh, my God. Oh, my God. (EXPLETIVE DELETED)


BLITZER: A horrifying inferno, neighborhoods engulfed in searing flames and choking smoke, as thousands of residents hit the road desperate to escape.

Firefighters are waging an intense battle against numerous blazes across Southern California right now, an unprecedented fire disaster early in the year. Your looking at the most dangerous hot spot right now, an out-of-control wildfire that's threatening the city of San Marcos and a college campus right there.

Our correspondents are in the hardest-hit areas. We're tracking weather conditions that could ignite new flames literally at any moment.

Let's go to our national correspondent, Gary Tuchman, first, though. He's joining us live from the fire zone in San Marcos.

Gary, what's the latest there?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: People here in San Marcos, Wolf, are very unnerved.

This is a community of 83,000 people. And take a look at what's behind me. You can see those flames shooting up in the hillsides here in San Marcos, California. What's been very stunning about this fire, Wolf, is that yesterday morning, there was nothing and it just came all of a sudden, all these fires in San Marcos.

Then it died down a little bit this morning. The afternoon came and it's picked up again. And we have already seen houses today here in San Marcos destroyed from these flames. So far, nobody's been killed, no serious injuries, but people here are very scared. A lot of people here have never seen anything like this before. About eight years ago, they had some wildfires.

But right now, it's a very volatile situation, and people are very concerned here in this town northeast of San Diego.

BLITZER: Gary, I want to show our viewers one of the neighborhoods in San Marcos right near where you are right now. We all watched in horror as the fire rolled down near the intersection of Via Del Campo and Paseo Tierra.

We wanted to show our viewers that same view before the fire from Google Street View then what we saw just a little while ago as the twisters of fire began swirling. And you can see how different it is. Gary, you're there on the scene. How are the folks coping?

TUCHMAN: Well, you know, people here, when they live in this part of California, they know that they're vulnerable to having wildfires.

However, the strength and the suddenness of these wildfires have caught a lot of people off-guard. The firefighters who you see right now -- and they have come from all over Southern California.

This truck is from Newport Beach in Orange County. We saw the Santa Monica Fire Department here a short time ago. They're doing a very professional job. They're working very hard. There's a lot of pressure because this fire is spreading so quickly.

But, Wolf, what is so unusual, is we're used to covering wildfires, but we're used to covering them in the heart of the summer, the beginning of the fall. That is fire season. This is only May. It's still springtime. It's been so dry here in California that everyone here is very vulnerable and that's why there's so much concern right now as these flames on to shoot up.

And the good news, Wolf, and we must emphasize there is some good news, it's supposed to cool down tomorrow, get a bit more humid. And then this weekend, the high is supposed to be in upper 60s here. That's the typical high in San Diego County in May. Right now, it's in the upper 90s, 30 degrees more than normal.

BLITZER: So it really is a hot day there. Gary, thank you very much.

Let's go to Carlsbad, California, right now. That community is suffering from some of the worst fire damage.

Our Akiko Fujita is on scene for us.

Akiko, tell us what you're seeing.

AKIKO FUJITA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's been one problem after another for firefighters here on the ground, scorching temperatures in the morning, the winds starting to kick back up again.

And just take a look at what we're looking on the ground here, tinder-dry conditions, All of what you see here just scorched overnight. I'm going to take you to the hillside here, because that's where you see where Gary Tuchman was. That's the San Marcos fire. Now, you don't see the plumes of smoke that we saw earlier today. But that's not because the fire isn't burning.

It's that these strong winds are carrying the blaze to the east of the hillside. Now, you look to the west here. You see one fire there, another one to the left on Camp Pendleton. That one has really started to kick up over the last few hours and, again, it's the strong winds that are carrying the fire this time to the direction that we're in right now.

I can tell you that we have been speaking to homeowners out here. They are concerned. The area we're in right now, well, the blaze is about 60 percent contained, but we have seen homeowners come up here, look at this house, because they know that this could be them. One homeowner I spoke to said he has neighbors out here with hoses in their hand watching the hillside over here because they want to be ready to go when those flames pick up -- pick back up again.

BLITZER: You spoke with the mother, the wife of somebody in one of those destroyed homes earlier today, Akiko, and that was a very emotional interview.

FUJITA: Absolutely.

We saw Sherry Payne and her family coming through here just digging through the rubble. This is what's left of their home. You know, they came here last night. All they saw was all the rubble here. She told me that they bought this house in 2006. They built it from the ground up. Just last week, she hosted a wedding reception for her daughter, and now this is all she sees. Let's listen to what she had to say.


SOPHIE PAYNE, FIRE VICTIM: It was a three-bedroom, four-bath. Everything was in its place. I had everything I possibly could want. It was absolutely gorgeous. And now it's all gone. All gone. What can I say? It's absolutely all gone. Finished.


FUJITA: And I want to correct that. Her name is Sophie Payne, not Sherry Payne. But I can tell you there's one bit of good news for that family. When they came out here yesterday, they went looking for their dog and they found the dog in the back of the house. They were able to rescue him. He's in good condition. But, right now, that's all that they have left.

BLITZER: An entire house burnt down with all their possessions inside.

Akiko, thanks very much.

Let's check the forecast for the fire zone right now.


BLITZER: And Jerry Brown, the governor of California, told me in the last hour he's blaming climate change, global warming for exacerbating these problems.

Let's get a live update right now on the fire danger.

The fire chief Ken Pimlott is joining us. He's director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Pimlott.

I know that we spoke yesterday. Is it getting worse, is it getting better? What's the forecast from your perspective?


You know, as Governor Brown indicated earlier today, we made excellent progress on many of the fires overnight and this morning. But, as you have been reporting all day, the afternoon here in California, during fire season, it warms up.

And we sort of call that the witching hour, almost like clockwork. In those early to late afternoon hours, fire activity picks up in intensity. And so that's what we're seeing, particularly on this Cocos fire, the one in San Marcos.

It's been the fire we have been watching most closely all day. We're seeing, as you're reporting and showing, you know, intense fire behavior on areas of that fire.

We are tracking the weather, just as you have been reporting. And what we're looking forward to with the change in this wind, so that it becomes the onshore influence, hopefully later tonight or some time tomorrow, that will bring with it higher humidities and better opportunity for firefighters to get a handle on this fire.

Of course, that also brings with it a wind change. And we also have to be concerned about fires going in a different direction. So that's why we have over 2,600 firefighters in San Diego County in the greater area right now battling these fires. We're also getting reports -- again, we talked about that, the ongoing fire danger today of a new fire on Camp Pendleton at the Las Pulgas gate, which is on the western side of the base. So, we're getting early reports of evacuations of Marine personnel. We're working on getting those confirmations.

But all of this is just an indicator, just as you're reporting, the conditions out there continue to be dry. The vegetation as governor Brown talked about is just absolutely tinder dry. It's kindling. We're going to continue to see these kinds of fires all summer.

BLITZER: Those -- it looks like tornadoes, those firenados, whatever you're calling them. How unusual are they?

PIMLOTT: Fire whirls, as you saw earlier today, they're not uncommon. We see those, that kind of erratic fire behavior on many fires, a result of uneven heating as the day warms up.

Those are the things that we look for very carefully. It's a safety issue for firefighters because they can move fire very quickly and they can also grow the fire very rapidly as it pushes the fire across fire lines.

BLITZER: Ken Pimlott, director of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, good luck to you and the men and women who are battling these blazes. Thanks very much.

Still ahead, we will keep you up to the minute on the fire danger out West. We have dramatic new pictures, new information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM all of the time. Stay right here for the very latest.

We're also getting very scary details of a close call. Two planes came dangerously close to colliding over the Pacific Ocean. We will share the details with you.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news out of Southern California, an all-out assault against at least eight fires burning across San Diego County, the main focus right now, a blaze closing in on homes in San Marcos. About 10,000 acres already have been scorched across the area. We're told that the biggest fire at the Camp Pendleton Marine base is only 20 percent contained right now. We're staying on the story. We will get back to it.

But I want to get to a major development now on the terror front. We have new video that drives home the deadly brutality of one of al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliates. We want to warn you, the images you about to see are very graphic.

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

He's been working the story.

Mohammed, you have details.


Well, Wolf, as the battle at al Qaeda in Yemen intensifies, Yemen's army is doing all its can to convince the population they have gotten tough on terror. At the very same time, al Qaeda is going above and beyond in trying to present a kinder, gentler face to the population. Here's why.


JAMJOOM (voice-over): This shocking video shows the dead body of a Yemeni man accused of being a spy for the U.S. He was crucified in remote provinces taken over by terror group.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, committed horrific abuses against civilian populations, public executions, amputations, beheadings, ruling by absolute fear. Then, last year, AQAP attacked a hospital at Yemen's Defense Ministry and killed 52 people.

This surveillance video shows patients and staff huddled in a hallway watching as an attacker walks toward them, then lobs an explosive in their direction. Outraged was so great, AQAP released an apology, an extremely rare move, promising the group would compensate relatives of the victims.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: What we're seeing with al Qaeda in Yemen now is a recognition that they need to, you know, A, not kill Muslim civilians, and, B, if Muslim civilians are killed, to use it as a propaganda tool against the government or against the United States, saying, hey, we're not responsible for these civilian casualties.

JAMJOOM: Now, as the battle between Yemen's military and AQAP intensifies, so does the propaganda war.

Yemen's government releasing clips highlighting the heroism of their fighters, AQAP producing videos displaying a softer side, a clear change in tactics.

"The situation here is miserable," says this man. "What we need is security. We don't need the army to enter our area. We're afraid for our wives and our children if they come in."

The message in this glossily produced clip is simple: It's Yemen's army the people should be afraid of.

BERGEN: In Yemen, this al Qaeda group, when it controlled territory, was doing terrible things to the population. But now they're sort of on the back foot and I think they're using propaganda to say, hey, we care about civilian casualties. We can protect you from the government.


JAMJOOM: Of course, we should remember that in a war this murky, it's hard to know just exactly what's going on. But if these videos are any indication, AQAP, which is the most dangerous of all al Qaeda networks, seemed as emboldened and confident as ever -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Such gruesome, these images, awful, awful, indeed.

Mohammed, thanks for that report.

Just ahead, we will more on the breaking news on the terrifying fire emergency ongoing in California. President Obama is getting briefed. CNN is live, some of the most dangerous hot spots.

And how did it happen? Two airliners over the Pacific Ocean flying dangerously close to one another. Stand by for new details.


BLITZER: Let's check back with the breaking news, a state of emergency in Southern California right now. Multiple wildfires are raging. Fire officials say their top priority, at least at this moment, is the racing fire in San Marcos. At last word, it was only 5 percent contained. More than 20,000 homes have been evacuated, along with the California State University campus in that city.

Mandatory evacuation orders are widening to the residents in the neighbor widening city of Escondido as well.

Other news we're following, we're learning more about a scary close call in midair between two jets that came dangerously close to one another.

Let's bring in our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh. She has details -- Rene.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we now know that these planes were some eight miles apart. But as one pilot put it, at speeds of roughly 500 miles per hour, they could have been on top of each other within seconds.

And we just learned tonight that the NTSB and the FAA investigation team is en route to Honolulu, the air traffic control center there, which had jurisdiction over those two planes.


MARSH (voice-over): Terrifying moments thousands of feet above the Pacific.

KEVIN TOWNSEND, PASSENGER: And I though like, oh, God, this is it.

MARSH: United Airlines Flight 1205 from Hawaii to California cruising at 33,000 feet on April 25. The 757's collision alert system goes off, Flight 1205 in danger of colliding with a U.S. Airways jet.

Flight tracking sites show the plane plunged 600 feet in 60 seconds, without warning for passengers like Kevin Townsend. TOWNSEND: I'm looking down the aisle. And there's hundreds of people in front of me. People start screaming. There's noises of things that weren't secured falling around.

MARSH: Close calls usually come down to pilot or controller error, but disaster is almost always averted, thanks to collision avoidance technology and controllers.

LES ABEND, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: You're going to run into this situation. Unfortunately, nothing is perfect. I know that's not a comforting answer. But, indeed, the system worked.

MARSH: Last year, three planes were on a collision course at Reagan National near Washington, D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were cleared to the river back there. What happened?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stand by. We're trying to figure this out, too. Stand by.

MARSH: And in 2012, a radar tape shows a Japan Airlines plane nearly slammed into a cargo jet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Japan Air 72, heavy traffic, 12:00, half-a- mile.

MARSH: A new controller blamed for the mistake was sent for retraining. Townsend wants to make sure near-collisions are thoroughly investigated.

TOWNSEND: I don't think there's some epidemic of near accidents that's occurring, but it was a jarring experience dodging another plane.

MARSH: United says it's working with NTSB, which is reviewing this most recent incident.


MARSH: Well, the passenger on board this flight feared that because the disaster was averted, it wouldn't be thoroughly investigated. We do know the FAA told us today they started investigating immediately and their investigators, along with the NTSB, will arrive in Honolulu today.

Interesting timing, Wolf, considering this event happened some 20 days ago. We did reach out to NTSB today to find out what was with the gap, why it took so long to send investigators over there. This person, this individual with the NTSB not able to provide an answer to that.

BLITZER: Rene, thanks very much for that report.

An unprecedented study has been released assessing anti-Jewish views around the world. And the results are pretty stunning. Here's CNN's Tom Foreman.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A vicious spray of gunfire outside a Jewish community center near Kansas city, all the victims are Christian, but authorities say the alleged gunman has a history of hating Jews.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Officially, we believe this to be a hate crime.

FOREMAN: Hatred, mistrust, and misunderstanding of Jewish people and their faith fills the new worldwide survey by the Anti-Defamation League.

ABRAHAM FOXMAN, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE: It was sobering, very sobering.

FOREMAN: Abraham Foxman is the director and said the poll found anti-Semitic attitudes, according to the ADL's definition, in 26 percent or one out of every four people. Asked if they have ever heard of the Holocaust, just over half, 54 percent, said yes. And even among those who have heard of the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews:

FOXMAN: What's even more disturbing is that one-third believe that it's a myth or exaggerated.

FOREMAN (on camera): Anti-Semitism appeared highest in largely Muslim nations in North Africa and the Middle East, lowest in English- speaking countries like the United States. And Protestant Christian areas were the most welcoming for Jewish people.

(voice-over): Generally, more educated communities were less anti-Semitic, but long-standing stereotypes persist; 35 percent said Jews have too much power in the business world; 41 percent believe Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the countries they live in.

And when researchers asked what part of the world's population is Jewish, more than 10 percent, 1 percent to 10 percent, or less than 1 percent, the correct answer, the last one, was chosen by only one out of five people.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.


BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.