USA — The pastoral serenity of Possum Kingdom Lake was a draw for Abilenians looking for an escape from the city and the parched West Texas earth.
But residents trickling back to their vacation homes this week won’t find the same lake they enjoyed when they last visited, said Jack Rentz, who owns Rentech Boiler Systems and two homes on the lake.
Almost 150,000 acres and about 150 homes around Possum Kingdom have been ravaged by one of the state’s largest wildfires, and nothing is left in some areas but charred tree stumps and the skeletons of once-palatial homes.
Rentz visited the lake Tuesday and saw the damage firsthand. His two homes survived the fire, but just barely.
A stand of cedar trees that stood within 10 feet of Rentz’s newer house is gone. He estimated the wooded area was 50 yards wide and 200 yards long, but it has been replaced by blackened tree stumps.
Rentz found tire tracks in the driveway that led him to believe firefighters kept the blaze from reaching his house, which is sheathed in brick and has a tile roof. Just two windows were cracked, likely from heat.
About 150 yards away, in the cedar, was a home built in the past year by a neighbor out of lumber taken from a trestle bridge in Utah, Rentz said. The home is gone.
Rentz’s second home, an older, more traditional lake house on six-foot stilts, also was unscathed. But 10 of 15 homes that stood 200 yards away, across a cove, were gone, he said.
Both of Rentz’s homes are on the southeastern side of the lake near Hell’s Gate an area hit hard by the fire. Rentz said 75 percent of the homes in Hell’s Gate are gone.
“That’s where people will see the biggest difference when they go there,” Rentz said. “So many of the homes are just gone. Not partially burned, but just gone.”
Many of the homes cost $500,000 to $1 million because of their location, Rentz said.
Rentz said he didn’t have much time to survey the damage he accessed the homes by boat rather than by land and was eventually told to leave the lake.
The evacuation order for Possum Kingdom Lake was still in effect as of Wednesday afternoon, though it had been lifted for the town of Palo Pinto, said Rudy Evenson, public information officer with the National Park Service.
Abilene resident Terri Larimore-Birchum said Wednesday that she had not been able to travel to the lake to see her family’s cabin, but she had heard from family members that it survived the fire.
“It’s one of my favorite places on Earth,” Larimore-Birchum said. “It just makes me sick to my stomach, but I really worry more about the people that are out there trying to fight this fire than I do about the house. A house can be replaced, but the people can’t.”
Trees and grass around the cabin burned, but Larimore-Birchum said she believes the house is intact. She plans to visit the lake this weekend to survey the damage around her home.
The cabin has been in the family since the late 1950s and holds decades of special memories. Larimore-Birchum spent summers there when she was growing up, and it has become a destination for family holidays.
Wildfires have never been a problem in that part of the lake, Larimore-Birchum said. The family’s home is on the west side of the lake, across from the Possum Kingdom State Park, which was devastated by the blaze.
Some of Larimore-Birchum’s friends farther down the lake didn’t evacuate and they wound up having to fight a fire that threatened their house, she said. Some of their neighbors lost their homes.
“I just count my blessings that ours was spared,” Larimore-Birchum said.
The PK Complex Fire continued to burn Wednesday, but favorable weather conditions gave firefighters a bit of a break, said Alexis Brooks, public information officer for the Southern Area Incident Command Team.
As of Wednesday night, the fire had burned about 150 residences and 148,000 acres. At last report, it was 25 percent contained.