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Rainy reprieve allows closer look at devastation from wildfires

Posted Friday, Apr. 22, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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Scenes of destruction

On Wednesday, a federal fire official estimated the size of the PK Complex Fire at 208,000 acres. On Thursday, the firefighting teams returned to an estimate closer to what they had said earlier in the week -- 147,973 acres.

Thursday's reduced estimate "doesn't mean more of the fire has been contained," said Rudy Evenson, a federal spokesman. The acreage estimates are based on infrared aerial data that is compiled and analyzed over several days. Over time, as more data are collected, the estimates become more accurate, he said.

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POSSUM KINGDOM LAKE -- The road into Gaines Bend, a shoreline community, resembles a post-apocalyptic movie.

Acres of bare and blackened trees rise from the scorched earth like gnarled fingers. Singed fireplace chimneys tower over the rubble of charred homes.

The yellow jackets of firefighters are the only occasional splashes of color against rocky, ashen-gray hills.

At one turn, there's the appropriately named Hell's Gate Drive.

"This is an event that's going to mark time in our county's history," said Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer, standing outside a burnt-out home. "It's something that's going to change forever the looks and the community itself."

Mercer insisted that there will be life after the fire in the communities ringing the reservoir, which was created on the Brazos River basin during the Depression and finished in 1941. Lakeshore homes range from modest single-wide mobile homes to posh mansions fetching several million dollars.

Many of the areas seared by the weeklong fires -- dubbed the PK Complex Fire by the Texas Forest Service -- remained off-limits Thursday to residents who have been eager to learn whether their homes are standing and whether possessions could be salvaged.

More than 160 of the area's 3,000 homes have been reported destroyed.

Cooler, wet weather on Thursday temporarily stopped fires from blowing back through the area. But authorities said twisted, downed power lines and half-burned trees that could topple onto people made it too risky to let residents back in. The sheriff briefly escorted journalists through the area.

The weather also created a low cloud ceiling, which grounded the aircraft that carry infrared sensors that pinpoint blazes on the ground. So federal fire officials, who took over management of the PK Complex on Wednesday, said they couldn't estimate how much the rain affected the fire.

Spokesman Keith Jefferson declined to say what percentage of the fire had been contained because, he said, fires could flare up suddenly with sunshine and strong winds.

A call to prayer

Gov. Rick Perry asked Texans of all faiths to pray for three days.

"It is fitting," he said, "that Texans should join together in prayer to humbly seek an end to this ongoing drought and these devastating wildfires, and for the safety of the brave firefighters and emergency management officials."

Long restoration ahead

At Possum Kingdom, crews used four bulldozers to scrape fire lines through the brush Thursday while others used shovels and trucks with water bladders to extinguish spot fires, Jefferson said.

The cost of battling the blaze has reached about $500,000, with 584 people and 100 firefighting vehicles involved, he said.

The National Weather Service has no rain gauges at the lake, but nearby communities got 0.5 to 0.9 inch of rain Thursday, said Nick Hampshire, a weather service meteorologist. Quarter-sized hail was also reported, he said. At 9 p.m., a thunderstorm with high winds was approaching the area.

For today, the weather service predicted a slight chance of thunderstorms with a high near 90 and wind gusts as high as 30 mph.

Saturday's forecast includes a 30 percent chance of showers with a high about 80. Sunday's calls for a 20 percent chance of rain, increasing overnight to 40 percent.

"The fire is not contained and we are expecting that very active fire conditions may return," said David Boyd, a spokesman for the federal firefighting team.

Smoldering hot spots could still flare up, even where it rained, he said.

"Because we have had such a long-term drought, the thicker dead fuels are not going to readily accept this moisture," he said.

Utility crews are working to restore electricity and water. Asked how long it could take to restore power, the sheriff said, "The response I got yesterday was days, weeks, months ..."

"We've lost so much of our system," explained Marty Haught, an official of United Cooperative Services, Palo Pinto County's major electricity provider. "Our initial estimates show that 1,500 to 1,800 poles and about 180 miles of line have been affected by the fires.

"I know there are going to be people who get in there and find that their home is OK and think, 'I escaped the disaster.' They're going to want power. But the infrastructure between that house and our substation could have been totally wiped out."

Some poles must be set in granite, said Ray Beavers, CEO of United, which is contracting with other companies to address the problem. "This is going to be the most major undertaking we've ever done."

Random devastation

The fire seemed to have devoured some structures and skipped others with no discernible pattern.

One house overlooking the lake was destroyed, but its two-car carport was unscathed.

"It's strange," Mercer said. "The burn pattern is one house will be down and the next one will be standing."

Few items in the rubble were recognizable. At one lot, a blackened washing machine sat with its door askew and remnants of burned clothing inside.

At a donation center in Mineral Wells, Mary Payette and her teenage daughter, Chelsea, looked at clothing. They evacuated their mobile home Sunday on the east side of the lake and were staying at a friend's home.

Their attempt to learn their home's condition was complicated by the fact that their small road, like others near the lake, has no name, Payette said. "All we have is a house number but no street name. When you're asking people who have been out there, it's hard to describe."

Staff writers Marty Sabota, Barry Shlachter and Chris Vaughn contributed to this report.

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

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