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Possum Kingdom Lake residents ask: What now?

Posted Sunday, Apr. 24, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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The Texas Forest Service has set up the VFD Emergency Assistance Fund to help volunteer fire departments that are fighting wildfires statewide. Donations are tax deductible and can be earmarked for specific departments, counties or regions. All proceeds will be distributed to volunteer fire departments via grants. For information, e-mail HelpingTexas@tfs.tamu.edu.

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.

Possum Kingdom

State Park

Homes weren't the only losses from the PK Complex Fire.

Possum Kingdom State Park sustained devastating damage to its 1,500 acres of parkland. But firefighters saved the headquarters building, cabins, boat docks, concession building and other campground facilities, a "remarkable" feat in the eyes of Brent Leisure, who heads up the parks system for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

That means that there is hope, he said, for getting the park open again soon, perhaps by Memorial Day.

A team of engineers, plumbers, electricians and other facility experts is going into the park Monday to assess the damage completely, but Leisure said the biggest concern is damage done to the electricity and wastewater treatment systems. Those can be fixed relatively quickly, he said.

The park just may not look its best for some time.

"The majority of the park was burned over, and some of it was particularly intense," Leisure said. "From a natural resource perspective, we have a long-term recovery ahead of us."

-- Chris Vaughn

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Linda Cappel's life had come full circle.

Growing up in Breckenridge, she spent her summers swimming and playing at her family's house on the west side of Possum Kingdom Lake.

Last year, her family bought their own home with friends in the Sportsman's World subdivision on the southern part of the lake.

Three weeks ago, her family celebrated her father's 90th birthday at their second home. They went to dinner at The Cliffs, a nearby resort development that includes a golf course and a hotel, and marveled at the donkeys, deer and rabbits that lived around their home.

"It was a landmark celebration," said Cappel, 53, who lives in Fort Worth. "We love it out there."

Then Cappel, like hundreds of other homeowners around Possum Kingdom Lake, held her breath as the wildfires began to burn in the area April 13, first sweeping through a portion of the west side of the lake, then racing toward Hog Bend, Sportsman's World, Gaines Bend and The Cliffs on the south side, where many of the larger, luxurious homes are located.

"It was just like a roller coaster ride," Cappel said. "You would hear one thing and say, 'OK, we're out of the woods,' then hear reports that all homes were gone. You never knew which one to believe. But then I texted our Realtor friend, Mike Powell, and he texted back that it did get caught up in the fire. It was kind of a shock. Boy, it was a real shock."

As both full-time lake residents and "weekenders" are finally getting firsthand looks at their properties, they have to confront the inevitable what-now questions. Officials say 167 homes were lost to the fires and an unknown number damaged either by flames or smoke, a devastating toll but still a small fraction of the estimated 3,000 homes around the lake.

Cappel's initial reaction is that they will rebuild.

"We're trying to be realistic about it," she said. "We know it may be two or three years. That may be even short. I just don't know."

Because of the lake's astonishing beauty, the lure of lakefront property in a hot climate and the dollar figure attached to land around Possum Kingdom, many families will also undoubtedly rebuild with or without an insurer's help. But that rebuilding effort depends on when the fire danger is reduced and when power can be restored.

Both, as Cappel noted, may take longer than anyone wants.

Lots of work ahead

United Cooperative Services, the major electricity provider in Palo Pinto County, told a group of residents that the energy delivery infrastructure took more than 60 years to create. Now, it expects that repairs could take until Memorial Day to complete, said the co-op's CEO, Ray Beavers.

About 500 utility poles are down and 1,000 to 2,000 residents remain without power, Beavers said. Repairs are expected to cost $1 million to $2 million, but customers should see no increase in utility bills, he said.

Workers may need four weeks or more to restore power to some of the hardest-hit areas, such as Hog Bend and Sportsman's World, Beavers said. The Gaines Bend community may have power restored sooner because workers will come into that area from a different direction and because of the differences in soil type. In other areas, crews will need extra time to cut through rock, Beavers said.

"Hog's Bend and Sportsman's World have had some real devastation," Beavers said. "But the lines out there are built on solid rock. We feel like those two areas will be our most challenging."

Beavers described his task "as the most difficult situation to restore power I can imagine."

"We've had tornadoes and ice storms, but in 35 years in the business, I've never encountered anything this challenging," Beavers said.

Meanwhile, the federal incident command downsized the ground covered by the PK Complex wildfires to 126,279 acres after sending U.S. Forest Service cartographer Eric Schmeckpeper in an aircraft to map the fires, spokesman Rudy Evenson said. Earlier, state and federal fire officials estimated that the blazes covered more than 208,000 acres, then nearly 150,000.

On Saturday, the command said the Possum Kingdom-area fires remained 25 percent contained. Returning residents are being warned that a smoldering log or stump could touch off islands of untouched vegetation and that lower humidity and stronger winds predicted for Monday and Tuesday are causing concern, Evenson said.

'Building boom'

Even before the fires, Possum Kingdom was undergoing a dramatic shift from the way it was 30 years ago.

The Brazos River Authority, which owns the lake, sold off more than 1,500 leases to Arlington businessman Mike Patterson for $50.3 million. The sale closed last year, and Patterson said about 1,100 leases have been sold back to the leaseholders, giving many homeowners title to the land too.

Given demand for property around the lake, Patterson is bullish on a quick recovery. Houses in the Gaines Bend and Sportsman's World subdivisions, for instance, regularly sell for more than $500,000 and even over $1 million. But other areas of the lake carry prices of $200,000 and less.

"I suspect by summer we're going to see a building boom at Possum Kingdom Lake," he said. "I suspect builders all around the Metroplex will be building nicer, new homes at the lake. I'm just hoping and praying people have adequate insurance for their homes."

State Farm spokesman Kevin Davis said that as of Thursday 42 claims had been filed in the Possum Kingdom area. But it's too early for an overall assessment of damage, said Mark Hanna of the Insurance Council of Texas.

Homeowners policies typically cover fire losses, Hanna said. But the same roadblocks that are preventing residents from getting back last week also slowed insurance adjusters from surveying the destruction.

No insurance

Other people at the lake, though, will have to try to restart their lives without an insurance check.

On Hog Bend, a small peninsula accessible only by boat, the fire destroyed at least 24 houses. Unlike other areas of the lake, Hog Bend has much more modest-size houses, in the neighborhood of 1,000 square feet, many of them dating to the 1960s and '70s.

Most Hog Bend homeowners do not have insurance, according to one longtime resident.

"If you don't have a mortgage, you don't have insurance," said Jim Gribble, who has owned his home since 1973. "It's completely unaffordable because we have no fire protection and no direct access for the police. The homes that are paid for out here are uninsured."

It's the reason that Gribble stayed at his house to fight the fires himself last week.

"I could not afford to lose my home," he said.

He and a neighbor battled to protect 15 to 20 homes, including theirs, all day and all night Monday, using water hoses at first, then shovels, brooms and aggressive mowing and clearing. "Out of those we lost probably five of them," he said.

Letha Stone, 52, who lived in a double-wide trailer on 17 acres on the lake's west side, is hoping for some form of federal assistance to rebuild.

She was one of the first to lose her home. Her daughter, Kristy Stone, lived next door in a single-wide with her children, Haylee and Preston Bradshaw, 11 and 10.

Both of those homes burned to the ground April 14 -- the second day of the PK Complex Fire -- as well as two owned by her brother, Bert Cook of Angel Fire, N.M.

"We lost everything," said Stone, who is now staying with her parents on the lake. "I've lived here on the lake for 31 years and there since 1990."

She didn't have insurance but is hopeful she can stay. "I guess we'll just try to see if we can rebuild," Stone said. "I don't think I can leave here yet."

'People love this lake'

Gribble, a retired home builder who said he built more than 70 houses on the lake, said rebuilding the damaged areas will be slow and extremely costly.

He referred to the square-foot costs to build at Possum Kingdom as "Colorado prices," meaning they can approach Vail or Beaver Creek costs because of the difficulty in getting materials delivered and the accessing the area.

"It's also very costly when you have to accommodate a crew for weeks to build a 4,000- or 5,000-square-foot home," he said. "You can spend a tremendous amount of money real quick."

Not all was lost along the shores of the lake, though. The fires didn't touch the marinas, restaurants and many lodges, although it is unclear when they will reopen.

Just east of Gaines Bend and Sportsman's World is The Cliffs Resort, which features 200-plus homes, a hotel, 90-plus condominiums, a golf course, restaurants and a conference center that all made it through the fire unscathed.

Mike Ward, president of Dallas-based Double Diamond Resorts, which owns The Cliffs, said he is hoping to reopen this week. Other than some cleanup of ash and trash, he's just waiting for the authorities to reopen roads.

"I feel certain that by the weekend, we'll be ready to roll," he said.

By late last week, Ward was virtually giddy with relief. He didn't feel the same way early last week when the fire was threatening to move into his development. He credited the White Bluff Volunteer Fire Department, which came from 100 miles away, with saving the property. Also instrumental, he said, was that those firefighters used fire hydrants in his development until water pressure plummeted.

It was unclear whether the other hard-hit subdivisions had fire hydrants.

"It was scary," Ward said. "It was on us. The guys just beat it back."

Monte Land, president of the Possum Kingdom Lake Association, also escaped any damage to his home on the east side of the lake. He spent the week helping feed and supply firefighters.

He's been at Possum Kingdom since 1975 and has seen firsthand the mushrooming development and growing reputation of the lake. Like the vegetation, it will all come back, he said.

"People love this lake," Land said. "Hell, in two years you'll never know there was a fire, except for the cedar trees that are gone. And, hell, I don't care about that."

Staff writers Mitch Mitchell and Barry Shlachter contributed to this report.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

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