SAN DIEGO From the northern border of San Diego County, plumes of smoke could be seen Tuesday rising to the south, then streaming over the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye could see. Farther south, a brownish-gray cloud of smoke enveloped the county, the result of devastating wildfires.
The blaze, which left homes, businesses and other structures in ashes, stunned missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serving in the California Carlsbad Mission.
"It's kind of surreal," said Elder Jake Layton from Centerville. "It hasn't sunk in yet."
Elder Corey Nieves of West Jordan said, "You always think it will happen to someone else."
In this case, they were among the millions experiencing what some are calling the worst fire disaster ever in the area.
Elder Joseph Liddle of Orlando and Elder Scott Manning of Las Vegas, Spanish-speaking missionaries, were first jolted when the first fire broke out Sunday near the central-county town of Ramona where they were working.
After their church meetings, they were evacuated to stay with church members in Poway. Then, about 4:30 a.m. Monday, they were informed they had to evacuate again as the fires approached Poway, which ultimately was one of the hardest-hit communities.
Elder Liddle said he felt anxious when he and his companion were asked to go back to Ramona to help evacuate a person sister missionaries were teaching. But the fear was overcome because "we do what we have to do," he said.
Elder Bryce Packard of Springville said he and his companion had only five minutes to get out of their apartment in Rancho Bernardo, another hard-hit community.
While many county residents were overwhelmed by the destructive force of nature, the missionaries became "antsy," according to their mission president, Richard B. Brady of Orem, because they were eager to get out and help. They quickly had the opportunity as volunteers were needed at evacuation centers set up in schools, churches and other locations.
Elder Garrett Carlile of West Valley City and his companion Elder Jake Layton of Centerville were the first missionaries to volunteer at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Assessing the situation after arriving Tuesday morning, they informed their mission leaders of the need for help and were joined by 14 other missionaries during the day.
Ashley Pugh, a volunteer from Point Loma, praised the missionaries for their service. The 23-year-old schoolteacher said, "They have been awesome. They haven't stopped all day."
Pugh said missionaries kept the showers at the fairgrounds supplied with towels, shampoo, soap and other necessities. They also unloaded vehicles that carried donations and kept the donations organized for orderly distribution.
The LDS Church was among the organizations that sent emergency aid.
According to the church's Web site, six semitrailer trucks have been dispatched to various evacuee shelters carrying more than 28,000 blankets, 26,000 hygiene kits, processed foods, cots and other supplies.
Thirteen large church meetinghouses have been designated as shelters for evacuees.
Utahns with emergency-aid training also are heading to California to help.
At least 13 trained emergency shelter operators from the American Red Cross in Utah are headed to San Diego to help with the fires there, along with at least 14 U.S. Forest Service firefighters from Utah.Additional personnel will be dispatched in the coming weeks, said Red Cross spokeswoman Rachel Colledge.
Contributing: James Thalman