CADDO -- The entrance to Possum Kingdom State Park is a bleak landscape of blackened earth, trees and cactus.
A wildfire dubbed the PK Complex Fire by the Texas Forest Service roared through in mid-April, burning about 90 percent of the 1,528-acre park.
But as bad as that sounds, things could have been much worse at the park 17 miles north of Caddo and about 100 miles west of Fort Worth.
The wildfire mostly consumed heavily wooded areas along the bluff tops ringing Possum Kingdom Lake; it didn't destroy the campgrounds along the shore or most of the park's infrastructure, including a store-marina, cabins, office and water plant.
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"We had a guardian angel looking out for us," ranger Carolyn Mallory said this week as she checked in the park's first visitors since the epic fire. "Give the firefighters credit -- they saved us."
Fort Worth pediatrician Mike Cowan, his wife, Emily, and daughter, Kate, were checking out the park for the first time.
"We could camp here and have the whole park to ourselves," Mike Cowan said.
Mallory, who has been at the park for 14 years, said she feels doubly blessed -- the fire damaged the mobile home she lived in outside the park, but she was able to salvage all her belongings. She's now having a home built on her property.
Another park employee's home was destroyed by the fire that surrounded the park at one point, forcing some workers to flee in boats.
"I've never seen anything like it, and I hope to never see it again. It's a wonder everything didn't burn," Mallory said.
During the two weeks before it was contained April 28, the PK Complex Fire burned more than 126,000 acres in Young, Stephens and Palo Pinto counties.
The Possum Kingdom park is reopening just in time for the Memorial Day holiday, when the campgrounds are usually filled to capacity. Its 10 cabins and 10 primitive campsites are still closed, but more than 100 other campsites are available in a green ribbon of land along the lakeshore, which is the main draw for the park's 44,000 annual visitors.
For the next week or so, campers will have to supply their own drinking water until repairs are finished on three burned sewer field lines in the park's wastewater system. Restroom and shower facilities will stay closed until the work is done, but portable toilets are being supplied.
Dodging a bullet
Fingers of fire dropped down off the tall bluffs and came within a whisker of engulfing the park's water plant, multiple employee homes and guest cabins. But only a linens building and one cabin were damaged.
Greg Creacy, a fire and natural resources coordinator for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said the fire presents new opportunities in management of the park.
"There are lessons to be learned for all of us. Fire is an important part of the ecosystem, and we're using it as an opportunity to end up with a healthier system than we had before," he said.
Workers will clear burned trees that create safety problems in public areas, but most of the blackened spikes will be left standing, he said.
Hope for revival
For now, Jeff Nichols, who runs the park's store and marina, feels "incredibly blessed" that the campgrounds and infrastructure survived.
During the fire, he positioned two boats at the dock that gave park workers a final escape route when the blaze closed the only road in.
"It was really, really spooky. When you watch a 60-foot wall of flame come down the mountain, it's beyond words. I didn't think anything would be left," he said.
Nichols, who estimates that he lost $50,000 in business while the park was closed, remains hopeful about Possum Kingdom's rejuvenation.
"We really don't know what to expect. We just had the best spring break we've ever had. But it's tough when you've been closed for weeks. We're cautiously optimistic," he said.
"The lake is still beautiful. It's just going to take some time to get the word out."
Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981