Larri Kay Penn: An eyewitness to devastation

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 27, 2002

Features Editor

No one moves to the Rocky Mountains to make money.

Wages are low and living expenses are high. People move to the Rockies because they love the land.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

That’s the way Larri Kay Penn explains why she’s found a new home in the southwest corner of Colorado. She went there four years ago because she was curious about the mountains. She fell in love with the land. She was touched by its beauty and she’s not sure she’ll ever live anywhere else.

But, this summer Mother Nature got mad and she’s roaring through Colorado bringing destruction everywhere she goes.

Fires are ravaging the state and it has been declared a national disaster area. More than 400,000 acres have been destroyed and 10 fires are still burning.

Flames from the two fires that are raging near Larri Kay’s home in Durango seem dangerously close in the night skies.

As she spoke by telephone Tuesday, the flames were leaping 350 to 500 feet and the smoke was so thick she could hardly see.

"My eyes are swollen,

a lot of people have sore throats and the heat is bad," she said. "But, those are the little things. The big things are the 47 homes that have already been destroyed,

the 1,445 homes that have been evacuated and the 67,000 acres on Missionary Ridge that have burned and the 400 acres right here in Durango.

Neither fire is out and we don’t know when they will be. Right now, they are only 30 percent contained."

Durango is a resort town that is usually bustling with hikers, campers, bikers and river rats at this time of year. Now, it’s filled with hundreds of fire fighters from all across the country and national guardsmen who are there to try to put an end to Mother Nature’s wrath.

Tent cities have sprung and schools and churches have opened their doors to house the workers and evacuees. Helicopters clutter the sky, making runs from area lakes to drop thousands of gallons of water on the fires and chemicals to deplete the oxygen in the air.

"There’s not much else that can be done," Larri Kay said. "The fire fighters are cutting fire lanes and setting backfires but the fires are jumping all over the place. It’s windy and it’s dry, so dry. Trees are supposed to have 14 percent moisture and they’ve got only 4 percent.

"Some of us were at the natural hot springs the other night and we could see trees literally explode. I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t know how to describe it. In Alabama, we’ve seen what

tornadoes can do. This is like a tornado that never quits. These fires have been raging here since June 9 and, if we don’t get rain soon, I don’t know what will happen."

Larri Kay said the fires are also hurting the tourist trade and, the people who depend on it for their livelihood.

"Tomorrow will be the last day for whitewater rafting on the Animans," she said. "It’s just drying up. We have a lot of ranches in the area and they’ve moved all of the horses out. The Durango, Silverton, Narrow Gade train, that attracts people from all over the world, has shut down. The fires are affecting jobs and people need to work."

Having grown up in south Alabama, Larri Kay had heard of wildfires but had no concept of how vicious and devastating they can be.

"It’s scary," she said. "It’s unbelievable. I never imagined anything could be this strong and raging. We have no idea when the fires will end, but, when they do, we know that everything around us will be charred and that will be sad. But, spirits are high. This is a tight little community and everyone is laid back. We love the land and it has a beauty of its own – no matter what.

"But, we want the fires to be out, so we can get back to what we all do, so ask everyone to pray for us. Ask everyone to pray for rain. Ask everyone to pray for the fires to end. We need prayers and we need for those prayers to be answered."