Last updated 9:22PM ET
December 14, 2017
KSUT Regional
KSUT Regional
Missionary Ridge, Five Years Later: A Couple Remembers
(2007-06-07)
A total of 56 homes, including this one along CR 250, were destroyed in the Missionary Ridge and Valley Fires of 2002. (Photo: Office of Emergency Management)
(ksut) - HOST LEAD: It's been five years since fire wreaked havoc on the Animas Valley, Missionary Ridge, Durango and La Plata County.
That anniversary will be marked this Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a series of events entitled: Missionary Ridge: Five Years After the Fire. Remember, Learn, Prepare.
Today, in the first of two reports, KSUT's Victor Locke brings us the story of one couple that lost everything during that fiery summer, but has since lifted their lives from ashes.

PAT KELLEY: FOR TWO WEEKS WE HAD SAT HERE AND WATCHED MISSIONARY FIRE, AND THE NATURE, AND THE WAY IT HAD BURNED.
VICTOR: Pat Kelley, a retired 18-year veteran of the Durango Fire and Rescue Authority at first didn't believe what he saw outside his window on Red Ridge Road June 26th, 2002.
That was the day fire broke out across the valley from Missionary Ridge.
It was as if mother nature was adding insult to injury.
PAT: 18 YEARS AS A STRUCTURAL FIREFIGHTER AND DOING SOME WILDLAND FIRE IT WAS THE FIRST TIME I HAD A REAL FEAR.
As winds fanned flames north across the hillside behind his home, he grabbed a hose to start wetting down his home.
His wife Cindy, who had been away, arrived home with a friend and volunteer firefighter Dana Helvey.
PAT: I WAS SO IN TUNE TO JUST WATERING THE DECK AND THAT I REMEMBER TELLING CINDY, JUST GET WHATEVER YOU THINK YOU NEED TO GET. DANA HELPED CINDY GATHER SOME THINGS AND I CONTINUED TO WATER THE DECK.
CINDY: THE THINGS CONSISTED OF ONE BOX.
PAT: YEH, THAT'S HOW MUCH TIME WE HAD.
CINDY: WHEN I CAME UP THE ROAD THERE WERE EMBERS FLYING AND ALL. IT WAS PRETTY BAD, SO I THOUGHT, OKAY, WHAT DO I GET, SO I GOT THE DOG, THE BOX, THE SACK I HAD THE MEDICINES IN, THE FOUR PHOTO ALBUMS, AND THEN THEY MADE ME LEAVE.
Pat Kelley stayed behind with his friend Helvey, the two thinking they could save the home, when the winds shifted, and a wall of fire started to come down the hill.
They retreated to the garage before eventually fleeing.
PAT: WE WALKED DOWN THE STAIRS AND BY THE TIME WE GOT DOWN THE STAIRS THE HEAT FROM IT, COMING OVER THE HILL, JUST THE HEAT, IS WHEN THEN THE REAL FEAR SET INTO ME, OF, THERE WAS NO TRUCK HERE, THERE WAS NOBODY FOAMING THE HOUSE, AND THIS FEAR THAT I'M NOT GOING TO HAVE A HOME WHEN IT COME BACK. THE HOPE WAS STILL, THAT MY GUYS WERE COMING. AND, THEN THE REALIZATION REALLY HIT ME THAT THE HEAT, THE HEAT WAS SO INTENSE, AND WHEN THE WIND CHANGED, IT SUCKED THE OXYGEN FROM US.
With Helvey, Kelley fled down the hill to rejoin his wife Cindy, and the couple's two grown daughters, Tara and Kodie.
They watched as the fireball raced over their home, and it emerged still standing, saved perhaps by defensible space Kelley had carved out around the home.
But their hopes were short lived.
Hot embers eventually torched the house as they were driving away to stay with relatives.
PAT: FLAME WAS COMING OUT OF EVERYWHERE. IT WAS THEN THE REALIZATION THAT NO WE DIDN'T MAKE IT, YEH IT'S GONE.
Kelley points to dozens of pictures spread out on a table before him in their new home, as he talks about being allowed, five days later, to return to their home on Red Ridge.
PAT: WHAT I SAW WAS THIS. DEVASTATION, NOTHING, LIKE A BOMB HAD HIT.
That's when Cindy, and especially Pat Kelley say they became angry.
A firefighters home never burns, yet his did.
There were no attempts to save it.
They were mad at their friends, mad at former fellow firefighters, and mad at God.
But both say their faith and belief in God is what eventually helped them put aside that anger, and survive a year of rebuilding their home and their lives.
PAT: AND SO ONE AFTERNOON WHEN I WAS UP HERE BY MYSELF CLEANING THINGS, I STOPPED FOR A MOMENT AND LOOKED ACROSS THIS DEVASTATION AND THE VISION HE GAVE ME WAS ALL THE FAMILIES OF 9-11.
CINDY: THE PAIN AND THE HURT AND THE AGONY THAT THEY WERE GOING THROUGH.
PAT: WHAT HE SHOWED ME WAS FAMILIES, FIREFIGHTERS AND POLICE OFFICERS SITTING IN THEIR HOMES, AND ON THEIR WALLS WAS ALL THIS MEMORABILIA LIKE I HAD.
CINDY: THAT WAS THE HARD PART, WATCHING WAS WHAT MY FAMILY WAS GOING THROUGH BUT I REALLY KNOW AND BELIEVE IN MY HEART THAT OUR FAITH REALLY BROUGHT US THROUGH.
The Kelley's are now in their new home, with new furnishings, which they are quick to point out, don't begin to replace the keepsakes they lost.
Their story was repeated dozens of times that fiery summer.
56 homes were destroyed in that six weeks of fire on the mountains of La Plata County.
From KSUT, Four Corner's Public Radio, I'm Victor Locke.
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