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California Wildfires; Interview with Mayor Matt Hall; General Motors Fined; India's New Leader; Is Arson to Blame for California Wildfires?; New Leader, Controversial Past

Aired May 16, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Suspected arsonists have been arrested with huge zones of Southern California now in cinders.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead. Arrested for suspected arson, could the teens in custody be connected to the massive wildfires that are making the San Diego area look like it was napalmed?

The money lead, General Motors hit with the maximum fine for delaying a recall for a decade. Two issues, though. The fine is less than 1 percent of GM's annual earnings. And, two, none of it is going to the crash victims or their families. Is that justice?

And the politics lead. It would apply to everyone, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is not hiding the fact that the billionaire Koch brothers are his target, Reid so eager to limit their influence, he's ready to change our nation's founding document over it.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the national lead.

The pictures look like Instagrams from hell, five remaining active wildfires burning all at once in Southern California, the flames charring more than 17 square miles in San Diego County. At least 11,000 people remain under evacuation orders.

A view now from the sky of the fire burning in Escondido. This is one of the more stubborn fires, doubling in size in recent hours. With no causes determined, investigators are treating each fire as if it is a crime scene. Now police say they have arrested two young men for allegedly setting two small brushfires yesterday in the county.

Police say they are looking into whether the suspects are connected to the larger fires that have been burning for days now.

Our Ted Rowlands is standing by live for us in Escondido, California.

Ted, officials are hoping that cooler temperatures and calmer winds will help today. Is the weather cooperating?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It has throughout most of the day, but within the last hour, the winds have picked up, Jake, which of course is bad news to put wind on those hot spots that are burning everywhere.

Most of the fires, because of the firefighters' efforts, are under control, except the Escondido fire, which is where we are and which blew here yesterday. This one is still a major concern.


ROWLANDS (voice-over): Al Said was in his backyard when a wall of black smoke and flames were coming straight for his house.

AL SAID, FIRE VICTIM: The first flame that I saw was a neighbor's tree that just went poof.

ROWLANDS: Thinking he was about to lose his home, Said says he was getting ready to leave when firefighters pulled up in three engines.

SAID: They were here. And I opened up gates for them, the back gate area to make it easier for them. And, quite frankly, I just said, guys, save my house if you can. And, whew, they did.

ROWLANDS: The home beside Said was lost. Everyone got out OK. When you consider the wall of flames, which included those mini-tornado- like spirals, it's amazing that more homes were not lost.

CAPT. MIKE MOHLER, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROSECUTION: Those firenadoes or fire tornadoes that you're looking at is an example of the critical fire weather and the explosive fire growth that we're seeing out here. Our fuel conditions are at a critical level. And we're in May. These are levels that we normally wouldn't see until August, September.

ROWLANDS: Time-lapse video shows the San Marcos fire going from bad worse in minutes. So far, it has scorched 3,000 acres and still going.

Meanwhile, there are questions on what or who might have started the fires.

BILL HORN, SAN DIEGO COUNTY SUPERVISOR: I just have my suspicions. It's six in a day. Even though the conditions would allow for that, usually when a fire spreads, it will spread by its own embers or it will spread close to one another. That -- that didn't happen here.

ROWLANDS: A 19-year-old man is one of two teens arrested for starting two small brushfires. As of now, though, neither has been linked to the larger blazes.


ROWLANDS: And, Jake, tonight, still 12,000 people are out of their homes. The big concern is this Escondido fire and the winds, which again have kicked up within the last hour -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Ted Rowlands, stay safe. Thank you.

Fortunes are shifting with the winds in Carlsbad, California. Just 48 hours ago, the sky in Carlsbad was orange with smoke and flames looking like the mess Godzilla leaves behind when he visits town. Thousands of people had to be evacuated from Carlsbad alone.

But, today, it seems as though things are starting to look up for the community.

I'm joined now on the phone by Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall.

Mayor, thanks for coming back on.

I know it's been a crazy week for you. At this point, do you believe your firefighters have the fire completely contained?


Any time you have conditions that we're in today, trying to get the hot spots out can sometimes take several days. So we weigh in on the side of caution, and we still have people out in the area, you know, looking at some of these places that are still -- still smoldering.

TAPPER: And what's the status on the evacuation order? Has it been lifted for everyone in your town?

HALL: It's been lifted for everyone. There's some areas where the most damage was done where we're still having police presence, but we have got just about everybody back into their home at this time, except for those that were lost.


TAPPER: Right.

Now that you're getting a handle on the fire, what's the next move? Will your fire department go to other fires and assist other crews?

HALL: Oh, yes, most certainly.

All of North County came to -- to Carlsbad because we were one of the first -- first fires in this week of many. So we will definitely be out with our men and women in other areas.

TAPPER: And, Mr. Mayor, the fire in Carlsbad burned, I believe, 400 acres. Please give us some description of the detail of the damage. How many homes have been lost, how many buildings?

HALL: In -- we lost about 24 apartment buildings, about four homes. About eight homes were damaged. And two or three commercial properties either were lost or damaged.

TAPPER: And put this into perspective for us. I know Southern California does have fires. Have you ever seen a fire this bad in -- obviously not in Carlsbad, but in Southern California before?

HALL: Southern California and its weather conditions, the Santa Ana conditions, we have experienced many fires over the years. We actually had a fire far more severe than this a few years ago called the Harmony Grove fire, where we lost 52 homes. Since that period of time, we have -- our building codes have changed. Our -- we have more equipment, better training, working to create more resources to make sure that that would never happen again.

TAPPER: All right, Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, thank you. Good luck with the last 15 percent of the fire. We appreciate your coming on.

HALL: Yes, thank you. And have a good day.

TAPPER: One of the scariest phenomenon that we keep seeing in these fire zones are these bizarre columns of flames spinning from the ground up into the sky. Technically speaking, scientists usually refer to these as fire whirls.

But in keeping with the rule that adding "nado" on to end of any word makes it infinitely more terrifying, many are simply calling these firenadoes.

Let's bring in our own Tom Foreman.

Tom, how does one of these so-called firenadoes or fire whirls, how does it form?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you know, Jake, one of the most dangerous things out there for a wildland firefighter is a day where the weather and the winds are constantly shifting, where a fire can spring up, and one moment it can be pushed one direction, and moments later it can be pushed back the other way.

So, how does this all come together to create that spiral? Well, first of all, the fire burns into a hotbed of fuel, whether it's low grasses or low shrubs, something that really gets it going. So, you're talking about 1,500 to 2,200 degrees in temperature.

Then a cold pocket of air appears somewhere above it, and all of that hot air starts rushing up toward that cold pocket, and you end up getting that typical spiraling pattern that you see in tornadoes, in fact, and up it goes. And as it does, it brings in hot gases from down around the ground, which may not be burning here, but as they get up high enough, as there's enough oxygen, they burst into flames, and that establishes that column, which starts rotating more and more rapidly -- Jake.

TAPPER: These things are fascinating and terrifying to watch, Tom. Are they actually as strong or as dangerous as regular tornadoes?

FOREMAN: Generally, no.

There are such things as true fire tornadoes, but they are incredibly rare. That's basically a tornado colliding with a brushfire. But when you talk about a fire whirl or a fire devil, as some people call it, we're talking something more about 20, 30, 40 miles per hour, instead of hundreds of miles an hour. But it's still dangerous. And here's why, because those winds we talked about earlier can make these things lay over and they start going horizontal, and then it's essentially like a blowtorch blowing hundreds, hundreds of degrees, thousands of degrees out across the ground, a huge danger to firefighters who get close.

And here's another danger. I talked about the gases that get drawn in. Even as this thing is going straight up in the air, also, there are tiny particles that are drawn in, and they may not be burning here either, but when they get up high, they burst into flames. Then they can be flung out and carried out by the winds so far that they start creating little ancillary fires off in the distance.

And it's very easy for firefighters who are too close to one of these or citizens who are too close to find themselves caught. And imagine if this fire that catches in between this spreads all around and suddenly they are essentially in a ring of fire surrounded in all directions.

That's why these have to be treated with caution. And these are fairly common. Fire whirls like this, Jake -- I have been covering fires for a long time, more than 30 years. You rarely get to see them up close as we have, but they are out there and they have to be treated with respect -- Jake.

TAPPER: And that's one of the reasons for the evacuation orders we keep hearing about.

Tom Foreman, thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD: Arson or accident? Two teens under arrest for possible arson, what were they caught doing?

Plus, he is the new leader of the world's largest democracy. He was once banned from entering the United States. Why wouldn't the federal government allow him on U.S. soil?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Staying with our national lead, as we reported at the top of the show, police in San Diego County have arrested a 17-year-old and a 19-year- old on suspicion that they started two small fires yesterday.

It's unclear whether they have any connection to the much larger fires currently barbecuing the San Diego area. From the start, people in the area have suspected that at least some of these massive fires were set intentionally.

Let's bring in Jeff Carle. He's a retired assistant chief with the San Diego Fire Department and spent 20 years investigating suspicious fires. Thanks so much for joining us. What leads to you believe that some of these fires may have been as a result of arson or at least set intentionally? JEFF CARLE, FORMER ASISTANT FIRE CHIEF, SAN DIEGO: Well, my belief is just based on the fact that there were so many. But, again, I'm an outsider at this point in time, so those folks that have the responsibility to actually conduct those fire investigations have that actual responsibility. Each one of them will be investigated and they will determine first where the fire started and then what caused the fire.

TAPPER: More than 17 square miles have burned. Where would one even begin to investigate?

CARLE: Well, there are last count besides the two fires you talked about the juveniles setting last night, there were nine fires as I recall seeing on the news. And every one of them is going to have their own specific area of origin. It's going to have a place where the 911 caller said they first saw smoke, where the first responders were first sent. And there will be witnesses, as well as the 911 caller. In addition to that, they want to talk -- the investigators want to talk to the first arriving engine companies to find out what they saw.

From there, it's a matter of reading the fire behavior indicators as well as eliminating certain areas where the wind or the weather actually pushed the fire in order to locate that area of origin.

TAPPER: It sounds --

CARLE: Once the area of origin is indicated then they got to go to work to eliminate accidental causes and looking for an incendiary cause, if there is one.

TAPPER: It sounds like such difficult detective work just because everything has been destroyed. Had there been times when it's as simple as finding the actual cigarette, finding the matchbook, finding the lighter that was used?

CARLE: I was not lucky once. I can't say that it's a regular occurrence. Sometimes, it does happen.

But the principles and the basis for these fire investigations systematic approach so you don't miss them if they are there. The difficulties arise when the firefighters first respond end up having to put fire lines into the area where that fire started. There can be a possibility that some evidence is either stepped on or washed away but we've worked over the years very diligently with the first responding companies to have them be able to recognize where a fire was likely to have started and to try to protect that area.

TAPPER: You said you were that lucky once. What did you find that one time?

CARLE: I was on my way home from my regular duty assignment when a fire started on the roadway, as I climb the hill into Ramona, where I was living at that time. I stopped because an engine company just arrived and the true fire investigator in me had me start looking at the area that appeared to me for where it most likely started. And I found the cigarette and matchbook delay device.

TAPPER: When someone burns down a building, somebody might suspect -- profit, revenge, vandalism -- what causes arsonists to set a wildfire?

CARLE: Some of the same motives you just mentioned as well as some of the others. I think it's extraordinary those two individuals that are in custody in Escondido set those two fires in the area where the base camp has been established for all the firefighters to come back and get some rest and recuperation and food. That part hasn't been talked about a whole lot yet, but you're not always talking about people who, for a pretty good euphemism hitting on all eight cylinders.

TAPPER: They were caught lighting a fire in a base camp? Lighting these two small fires in the base camp where the firefighters --

CARLE: The same park. Yes, the same park, Carson Park. So, a large park. Excuse me. But that's where fire camp is.

And in the same basic park, probably not in the base camp -- again I'm not investigating the fires, but I saw that on the news this morning that those kids were grabbed right there where all the fire engines and firefighters are trying to take a break and they were setting fires. So --

TAPPER: What's the typical profile of an arsonist?

CARLE: You know, there's not a lot of typical profile in some serial arsonists. We have identified people who tend to be Caucasian, tend to be male, 20 years old to 28 years old, and are really disaffected in terms of their fit into society. Some people use the term losers or loners. We've seen people like that in my career that were repeat offenders and the scary thing about those particular individuals is that they tend to be very, very prolific.

TAPPER: Jeff Carle, thank you for your time and insight. We appreciate it.

When we come back, he was once shunned by the West and even denied entry into the United States. That seemingly now will all change because he has become the prime minister of the world's largest democracy.

And later, they are enemy number one for Democrats, the billionaire brothers who use their fortune who try to influence campaigns. Now, the Senate Democratic leader has a possible way to stop them, amending the Constitution.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The world lead now -- Herbert Hoover promised a chicken in every pot, the man who will be India's next prime minister promised a toilet in every home. And considering that half of the 1.2 billion people living in India do not have a loo, that's a pretty big public health platform to live up to. The way that Narendra Modi, the leader of the Hindu Nationalist Party, India should build toilets before temples. But why should you care?

Well, Modi considered to be a fundamentalist Hindu, was criticized for not doing now stop the deaths of more than 1,000 people during a rash of anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in the state where he at the time was governor. It was so bad that this man who will soon be the leader for about one sixth of the world's population, he was not even allowed to enter the United States in 2005. The Bush administration denied him a visa.

Today, the White House is welcoming Modi with open arms.

But the questions remain. Who is this guy? What does he mean for his country and our economy?

Here to explain this to me, our Becky Anderson live from New Delhi.

Becky, this guy started out selling tea in train stations. Tell us more about Narendra Modi.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, if you ask anybody, even very connective here in India, they will say they don't know very much about this guy. So, I'll give it a go. He's been effectively the CEO of an extremely successful state here in western India. When I'm talking successful, I'm talking growth rates of 10 percent over last decade. That sounds good, doesn't it? We would like a bit of a 10 percent growth rate.

The average growth rate here now is about 4.5 percent on a national basis and India sees that as an underperforming nation and Narendra Modi has made a point on the campaign trail of saying, of making huge promises on the economic front, show me the Modi. That's been the overwhelming talk here and the overwhelming voice from some half a billion of those who have voted.

Let me step back for a moment. Half a billion people voted on what was the world's biggest Democratic exercise ever. And a majority of those, a clear majority of those have voted for Modi and his BJP party.

They are looking at inflation of over 11 percent here. They want the underperforming economy sorted out and that, of course, for the rest of the world provides enormous opportunities.

Jake, let's remind ourselves. This is an economy of $2 trillion. This is a big deal, being friends with the new leader or leader-elect at this point ought to be a pretty sensible decision, I think -- Jake.

TAPPER: But, Becky, he was banned entry into the United States a few years ago. Does he still resent that? Is there bad blood?

ANDERSON: I spoke to his spokesman about two hours ago and it was clear to me that if nothing else there was a pride issue here. If you're going to be friends with one of the biggest leaders or most important leaders in the world -- let's be frank, India absolutely ought to be up there as one of the powers if not the superpower, certainly that's what India believes, then you do not invite them to the party as it were. You don't ban them from coming into the States.

Certainly the spokesman was awaiting with bated breath and his leader for a call, a congratulatory call from President Obama. We now believe, we're told, that has happened. But just a little bit of time.

He does now, we're told, he will be given a visa, as all heads of state would be, to travel to the States. So that's, to a certain extent, being sorted out.

TAPPER: Becky Anderson in New Delhi, India -- thank you so much. When we come back, they've spent millions to try to sway the minds of voters. And Democrats are kind of sick of them. They are so sick of them they are willing to take drastic measures to try to put an end to it.

Next, what Democrats are cooking up to prevent the billionaire Koch brothers from doing what they do best.