Texas sheriff: Area hit by fire won't recover soon

By Angela K. Brown and Linda Stewart Ball

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 21 2011 11:15 p.m. MDT

Firefighters from the City of Lewisville, Texas work to extinguish spot fires at Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas on Thursday, April 21, 2011. Crews have been trying to contain a week-old wildfire in the Possum Kingdom Lake area about 70 miles west of Fort Worth that has blackened nearly 150 square miles of fields and woods and destroyed at least 160 of the community's 3,000 homes.

The Dallas Morning News, Louis DeLuca, Associated Press

POSSUM KINGDOM LAKE, Texas — A once-picturesque lakeside community will take years to recover since a massive wildfire blackened grassy fields and turned upscale resort homes into ash heaps, a Texas sheriff said Thursday.

Firefighters made more progress in containing the blaze that's charred nearly 150 square miles in three North Texas counties, but it's unclear when residents will be allowed to return to the Possum Kingdom Lake area, Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer said. Since starting a week ago in the lakeside area about 70 miles west of Fort Worth, the fire has destroyed about 160 of the community's 3,000 homes — mostly people who lived there on weekends or in the summer.

"It will be years before this is back to what it used to be," Mercer said Thursday, standing near a blackened field where the smell of smoke was thick and wind gusts blew ashes in the air.

The blaze is one of several burning in the drought-stricken state, including two massive wildfires in West Texas. Since Jan. 1, wildfires in Texas have scorched more than 1.4 million acres and led to the deaths of two firefighters.

On Thursday, fire crews under a light drizzle continued dousing smoldering heaps and chopping down trees to prevent small fires from spreading in the still-burning trunks. The fire in three counties was about 25 percent contained, fire officials said.

Besides the danger of smaller fires popping up, the area is still not safe for homeowners to return because of large tree branches, nails, broken glass and other debris, said Liz Caldwell, a spokeswoman for federal incident management team coordinating the Possum Kingdom Lake area fire.

"No resident will be able to come back in until the area is totally safe," Caldwell said.

In one area of the lakeside community atop cliffs overlooking the lake, only three walls of a home remained — and its garage that had been untouched by the flames. Next door, a stone fireplace was the only thing that survived the blaze. Some docks and boats in the lake below showed no signs of the fire.

In the rural area, some fields were blackened to the soil. In other places, trees and shrubs were untouched as the fire appeared to have raced in different directions — apparently because of shifting winds or tactics used to stop the fire, some fire crews said.

Ted Ryan, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said that while the storm system didn't bring significant rain to the fire area in North Texas, it brought cooler temperatures and high humidity that helped firefighters — improved weather conditions expected to remain through the weekend.

Gov. Rick Perry has proclaimed a three-day period, from Friday to Sunday, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the state.

But the hot, windy conditions dreaded by fire officials were expected to return Monday, said David Boyd, a spokesman for the federal incident management team coordinating the Possum Kingdom Lake area blaze.

Meanwhile, firefighters in West Texas made progress on two massive fires — a 160,000-acre blaze in Coke County near San Angelo and a 200,000-acre fire burning for two weeks in Jeff Davis County — and both are now 75 percent contained, fire officials said Thursday.

Bridget Litten, a spokeswoman with the federal firefighting management team called in to help with those blazes, said a storm system that brought relief with cooler temperatures also caused problems when lightning started a few small fires. But crews were prepared, she said.

The Jeff Davis County fire has grown drastically since it started nearly two weeks ago, and firefighters were planning to try to stop it by burning dry grass between a road and the part of the blaze burning in a canyon, she said.

Ball reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer Jamie Stengle in Dallas also contributed to this report.

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