POSSUM KINGDOM LAKE, Texas -- Their homes have been reduced to a gray heap of ashes, and acres of trees turned into blackened sticks. Yet many who live in a lakeside community ravaged by a massive Texas wildfire -- whether in a million-dollar mansion, a quaint lake house or a simple fishing cabin -- say they hope to rebuild and get back to watching the wildlife and whiling away the hours with loved ones.
"Possum Kingdom is a state of mind," said Carolyn Bennis, whose dream house was destroyed in the fire that has charred nearly 150 square miles in three North Texas counties. "It's not necessarily a place. It's just your heart and you just get addicted to it."
Firefighters have contained about a fourth of the blaze. On Friday, residents were allowed to return to some neighborhoods for eight hours to check out property damage or retrieve belongings from undamaged homes. They had to show proof that they owned property or lived there before passing through security checkpoints.
The fire that erupted a week ago near the lake about 70 miles west of Fort Worth has destroyed about 160 of the community's 3,000 homes -- mostly belonging people who lived there on weekends or during the summer.
"It will be years before this is back to what it used to be," Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer said Thursday, standing near a blackened field where the smell of smoke was thick and wind gusts blew ashes in the air.
Since Jan. 1, wildfires have scorched more than 1.4 million acres in the state and led to the deaths of two firefighters. Cooler temperatures this week helped crews completely contain several massive blazes and half a dozen others in the state, although some still were burning.
In West Texas on Friday, fire crews had to change tactics in battling a 202,000-acre wildfire in Jeff Davis County, which destroyed about 40 homes in the Fort Davis area when it started two weeks ago.
After the fire moved out of a canyon, crews decided to start a controlled burn by some roads Saturday in a 70,000-acre area to destroy parched grass and shrubs, said CJ Novell, a spokeswoman with the federal firefighting management team called in to help in West Texas. By the time the wildfire reaches the roads, crews hope it will be under control because there won't be anything left to burn, she said.
"We've got three days to get this done, because the winds are expected to be severe again on Tuesday and then we can't fly (to douse water on the fire) or burn," Novell said, adding that the fire northwest of Fort Davis is not moving toward any towns.
Bennis' three-bedroom lake house was atop a cliff overlooking Hell's Gate Cove at Possum Kingdom Lake, formed some 70 years ago by damming the Brazos River. Just last month she and her husband sold their larger home in Cleburne and moved their belongings and family heirlooms into the lake house, dividing their time between the lake and a small condominium in downtown Fort Worth.
She and her husband would watch deer nibble outside the kitchen window, or sit on the deck sipping coffee or wine as migrating pelicans and ducks flew overhead and children splashed in the crystal clear water below. They had a big Easter weekend planned, and her 4-year-old grandson cried when he found out about the fire because he feared he wouldn't be able to hunt eggs. Next year, she told him. Bennis and her husband will rebuild.
"Possum Kingdom is just a big deal for us," she said. "It's not just our house. It's where our heart is."
As the intense fire swept through the area, it torched some homes while sparing others.
In one home only three walls were left standing, and its garage was untouched by flames. A stone fireplace was all that survived next door. On another cliff across the cove, a fireplace towered over the heap that remained of the burned-out home, while an upscale house next door was not damaged. Some docks and boats in the lake below showed no signs of the fire.
In some places, the blaze blackened fields down to the soil and charred trees, burning away even their branches. In others, trees and shrubs were untouched and a few wildflowers grew on the roadside.
The fire also destroyed John McPherson's 1960s fishing cabin near Hell's Gate Cove -- which he'd finally bought in December after leasing for about four years, he said. McPherson, who lives in Abilene, said it had the same great views as nearby mansions "without the million dollar price tag." Because he had no insurance, all he has left is eight-tenths of an acre, a dock and the scorched and warped metal roof he put on just last summer.
The mid-week cooler temperatures and high humidity that helped North Texas firefighters were expected to remain through the weekend. But forecasters said the hot, windy conditions dreaded by fire officials were expected to return Monday.
Ball reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer Diana Heidgerd in Dallas also contributed to this report.
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