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Utah volunteers at work offering relief to Southern California fire victims

SAN DIEGO — Among the hundreds of Red Cross volunteers from across the country supporting recovery and relief efforts in San Diego County is a contingent of about 25 Utahns.

David Neale, director of emergency services for the Greater Salt Lake Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, said Utah volunteers have been arriving since the need arose following the outbreak of several fires Sunday. He and a few other Utahns were working out of the Red Cross headquarters in San Diego on Thursday, but he said most volunteers were scattered around the disaster area, helping at evacuation centers and other locations.

As the actual destruction from the wildfires lessens, the Red Cross is helping provide services for people whose houses were destroyed or damaged or who suffered other losses. That means aiding victims still in evacuation centers, including helping them locate new housing; begin the process of cleaning up, repairing or rebuilding; and generally helping them put their lives back together.

Among the Utah Red Cross volunteers are husband and wife John and Anne Collins. They left their Provo home Wednesday and drove to San Diego. On Thursday, they were working at the Del Mar Fairgrounds evacuation center about 20 miles up the coast from the city.

Anne Collins is at the front desk of the temporary shelter under the fairgrounds horse track grandstand, doing registration and sign-in for evacuees. Her husband fills whatever need he is assigned to cover, which at the beginning of his shift Thursday afternoon was helping watch over the children at the center.

The Collinses moved to Anne's hometown of Victoria, Canada, after their marriage in England. They met there when Anne was attending an International Red Cross convention where John, a member of British military special services, was providing security.

Earlier this year, they were driving south to Las Vegas to visit Anne's daughter and grandchildren from a previous marriage but stopped in Salt Lake City because John, who had been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wanted to see Temple Square and other church sites.

During the stop, they decided they wanted to live along the Wasatch Front and moved to Provo on July 10.

They attended the Spanish Fork 21st (Tongan) Ward with friends, and both said they love it. They serve in the ward's Scouting program.

Anne was hired by Utah Valley State College as a conference coordinator, and Tuesday was her first day on the job. That afternoon they were asked if they could go to San Diego as Red Cross volunteers.

John said they figured they needed to come up with $400 to make the trip, and that day heard from their bank that they had an overage of that much in the account. He said he thought that was a sign from God they should go to San Diego.

Anne said they had another miracle on the drive down when a radiator hose broke. They were within a hundred yards of a service garage, where John was able to get a new hose and borrow the tools to install it. They are prepared to sleep in their van unless the Red Cross arranges a hotel room for them.

They called their Red Cross assignment their "mission" and said they would fulfill it the best they could, even if that meant staying long term in San Diego. After all, they pointed out, they haven't put down deep roots anywhere.

Another Utah volunteer, Jo-Lynn Hatch of Taylorsville, works in front of a laptop computer on a table in the headquarters building. Surrounded by other volunteers performing similar duties, she processes volunteers arriving from everywhere from West Virginia to Alaska so they and their assignments can be organized and tracked.

A two-year Red Cross volunteer, Hatch's service in Utah is through the Reach program, providing services for the elderly and people with disabilities who are undergoing hardships and in danger of having utilities cut off.

Her life's situation was such that she was able to accept the request to go to San Diego with only 24 hours' notice. She arrived Tuesday afternoon.

Her service for those in need in Salt Lake is rewarding, she said. But in San Diego, she has found the rewards come when considering what those she is helping have been through, imagining herself in their place.

Her first two nights in San Diego, she said, she slept on a cot among "a million snoring people" in the Serra High School evacuation center. Though she acknowledged that may be an exaggeration, she said she did have to sleep with her arms at her side to keep them from flopping onto the cots on either side of her.

"I didn't complain, though, because unlike many of those we are helping, I do have a home to go home to," she said. She anticipates going home next Wednesday.