Rising from the ashes: Homes being rebuilt at Possum Kingdom Lake

POSSUM KINGDOM LAKE -- When Shawn Gibson's ancestors settled along the Brazos River in the 1850s, native grasses atop the rugged bluffs could tickle a horse's belly.

In the decades since, thirsty cedar thickets spread out from draws reaching down to the river, slowly choking out grasslands and springs.

But a more powerful force reversed nature's course one year ago. A horrendous storm of wildfires roared across the wooded ranchland and resort communities lining Possum Kingdom Lake.

Transfixed, Texas and the nation watched in awe as walls of flame raced over ridgelines and engulfed lakefront homes, forcing some residents to bail out by boat as the fires cut off escape routes.

"When it started coming, you couldn't believe how fast it was coming. Those cedar trees were exploding," said Ira Mercer, sheriff of Palo Pinto County. "It was the damnedest sight I've ever seen."

Now, despite an estimated $100 million in insured damage, many Possum Kingdom residents and second-home owners insist that, as a popular T-shirt slogan says, "PK is OK."

New and bigger

There's a rebuilding boom under way, with "lake people" etching their confidence in masonry stone.

In Sportsman's World, where 56 of 190 homes burned, the average redo is 66 percent larger than before, officials say.

Gibson is looking forward into the past as wildflowers poke up next to blackened trees.

"Nature kind of hit the reset button on us. When my ancestors came out here, this is how it looked," he said.

Before the fires destroyed 40 homes in his Gaines Bend development, roads were like tunnels through the forest to the finger coves and bluffs along PK's shore.

So far, Gibson has spent $400,000 clearing the burned common areas of Gaines Bend.

"We estimate we lost 2 million trees. We had baked tree stumps that were hard as iron. You couldn't chain-saw them; we smashed them down," he said.

"There's still a lot of work to do. But almost everybody who burned is building a bigger house. We're recovering at a fast clip. People have faith."

Jackie Fewell, a partner in a local real estate firm whose home in Gaines Bend survived but required a new roof, morphed into PK's unofficial communications chief during the fires when she hammered out blog reports.

The Pondera Properties blog rang up 1 million page views as it became the go-to information site for frantic evacuated residents and far-flung second-home owners, who outnumber full-time residents by a 5-to-1 ratio around the east side of PK.

Fewell is now doubling up as the president of the PK Chamber of Commerce and mobilizing a public relations blitz to douse the perception that the area is a lifeless burn zone.

"We're trying to let people know this is still a great place to visit. It's still beautiful," she said.

With lakefront lots that range from $250,000 to more than $500,000, it's also pricey territory.

But neither that nor last year's troubles are spooking prospective buyers.

"We've had a lot of activity this year. I had a $1.5 million listing, and in February, over a three-day weekend, we had seven showings and that was really surprising.

"People call and say they want to look at properties between $1 million and $2 million and you're like 'OK,'" she said.

Hell's Gate

In fires fueled by the drought, extremely low humidity, unseasonably high temperatures and swirling winds, hundreds of thousands of acres of Texas landscape had already gone up in smoke by April 9, 2011, when the Hohertz fire took off in Stephens County, then was quickly fanned into Palo Pinto County.

Hell's Gate, a dramatic break in the cliffs and the signature feature of PK, was about to live up to its name.

On April 12, the Jackson Ranch fire blew up south of the Hohertz blaze. The next day, the PK West fire exploded on the west side of the lake, followed by the PK East fire three days later. On April 18, the four fires merged into the inferno known as the PK Complex fire.

By the time the flames were contained April 29, the ring of fire around Possum Kingdom had charred 126,734 acres and destroyed 168 homes, two churches and 128 outbuildings, according to the Texas Forest Service. The fires also gobbled up 90 percent of Possum Kingdom State Park.

"It was a monster, it was a beast, it was a nightmare," said Ronnie Ranft, chief of the 25-person Possum Kingdom East Volunteer Fire Department, which logged 5,000 hours fighting fires last year -- 4,000 more than average.

Then, on Aug. 30, the 101 Ranch fire burned an additional 6,555 acres and ravaged 39 more homes in The Cliffs Resort.

"The fires were our 9-11. It changed our community. It really drove home how dangerous a major wildfire is," Ranft said.

But his lingering memory isn't the flames; it's the avalanche of aid that followed. Firefighters from around the country went on the attack. Donated supplies poured into command centers. The PK Firefighter Relief Fund raised $250,000 to help local volunteer firefighters like Ranft, an oil field worker, who spent five weeks battling the blazes.

"Afterwards, it really hit me, how lucky we are to live in a country, a state and community like this. People just stepped up. I've never known of something like that fund to pay firefighters. I would have suffered tremendously without it," he said.

'A guilt trip'

The 101 Ranch fire burned right through the entry gate for The Cliffs, where what little debris left from the fires is stacked in tidy piles across a rocky, treeless expanse of hills and draws.

"The cleanup has been phenomenal," said Peggy Pope, whose 10-year-old home survived while seven around it were consumed. "It was a guilt trip to be a survivor: Why us?"

But she won't be alone for long -- several replacement homes are being built around her.

Just down Texas 16, the hammers are pounding in Gaines Bend and Sportsman's World.

Some homeowners were calling builders before the smoke even cleared.

The construction is trickling down to the PK General Store/Whataburger, where it's standing room only at lunchtime.

"It's been an economic boost. Now we have an economy," owner Mel Woodruff said of the crowds that have boosted his bottom line -- first firefighters, then insurance adjusters and now work crews.

"I'm hoping for two more years of construction," he said.

Builder Mark Anderson has eight homes under way, including Doug Brown's three-level place with a bird's-eye view of Hell's Gate in Sportsman's World.

The old house featured a giant Texas flag painted on its roof overlooking the party cove where hundreds of boats gather on summer weekends. "It's kind of a spectacle. You're right on top of it," said Brown, who watched his home burn from a boat on the lake.

"We got on it immediately. We had a tractor on the lot two weeks after the fire," said Brown, who owns an oil and gas company in Dallas. "The silver lining is we got to build a house exactly like we wanted it. Hopefully, the flag will be back up soon."

Ken Parsons, a property tax consultant who moved from Tarrant County to Dallas County last year, got his Gaines Bend home going just as fast.

Terry Callicott, who built the original for him in 1997, gave Parsons a running description as the house, including his 40-year collection of Indian artifacts, was destroyed.

"He said the roof fell in and the next thing out of my mouth was put me on top of the rebuild list."

The new home is nearing completion. "We made it more of what we wanted. We got a second swing at it," Parsons said.

Forged by fire

But the rebuilding effort hasn't been so seamless for everyone.

In Sportsman's World, a replacement home near completion stands in stark contrast to the untouched wreckage of a home mired in an insurance dispute.

Other destroyed homes were on wooded lots away from the lakefront, and three of those homeowners took the insurance money and moved out of those areas, said Laura Kirklen of the Sportsman's World homeowners association.

Among them is Diana Higginbotham, who still works as a bookkeeper for the local water district. But now she commutes 35 miles from Mineral Wells.

With a slide show of her former home scrolling across her computer, Higginbotham said the loss plunged her into depression.

"It wasn't a lakefront lot, but we made it into our dream home. But it was so ugly after the fire we couldn't face rebuilding. It was horrible," she said. "I didn't know dirt could burn.

"It was a way of life I lost, not just my home. But I got some counseling.

"I just miss the connection. I miss the lake people. They're different."

The neighborhood's bond is now forged by fire, Kirklen said.

"We have huge turnouts for the monthly happy hour. Everybody has a shared experience -- good or bad."

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981