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April 29, 2011

Possum Kingdom State Park’s Recovery from Wildfire Begins

CADDO – Less than two weeks after wildfires swept through Possum Kingdom State Park, burning all but roughly 200 of the lakeside park’s 1,528 acres, infrastructure damages have been assessed, cleanup has begun and park officials are optimistic about recovery.

On Tuesday, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department crews got the wastewater plant back on line, inventoried burned park fences and assessed other fire-related damages, which were minor thanks to the efforts of dozens of state and federal firefighters who battled blazes that converged on the park from the south and west on Sunday and Monday, April 17-18.   Firefighters, who earlier this week remained at the park checking for the few remaining hot spots that could flare up, pronounced the Possum Kingdom Complex fires that scorched almost 127,000 acres and consumed 167 homes, 90 percent contained.

Park Superintendent Rocky Holland says that although he never feared for his life when wildfires raced through the park, it was a “helpless feeling” watching a wall of 40-foot-high flames top a hill and race downhill toward the camping area’s boat ramp parking lot where staff had retreated in case they needed to escape by boat onto Possum Kingdom Lake. Today, evidence of the fire’s impact is visible on a hillside less than 30 yards from the parking lot where it was finally stopped.

“It’s an overwhelming thing while it’s happening,” a soot-stained Holland said earlier this week while taking a break from checking out damage to park boundary fences on his four-wheeler, “but you’re in awe of the power of nature. After being in the park 12 years, you get to know and love every part of it so it breaks your heart to see it go up in smoke.”

Holland notes that despite the fire impacts to 90 percent of the park, it could have been a lot worse. He praised the hard work of the State Park firefighters and US Forest Service Hot Shot crews that cut brush away from park facilities and pumped water on the flames to keep fire from seriously damaging the buildings and campground.

The main thing, he says, is that no one was injured during the conflagration and only Cabin No. 2 and a nearby linen storage building suffered some roof damage. The fire did burn up the top two of three sewage treatment pond liners, but workers have lowered the water level to get the sewage plant back in operation until repairs can be made. About six miles of destroyed five-strand barbed wire fence along the park’s boundary – most on the west side of the park — will have to be replaced.

Despite previous news reports of extensive, long-lasting damage to much of the park habitat due to the fire’s intensity, soil in only about one percent of the park was essentially sterilized to the point where it will take years to recover, according to TPWD natural resource coordinator Greg Creacy, who led the agency’s firefighting contingent battling the park blaze.

Already, signs of nature’s tenacity can been seen in several areas inside the park. A one-and-a-half inch rain several days ago has caused some grass seeds to germinate and new shoots to sprout from bunch grasses in some areas of the park where the fire charred the landscape. Red ants scurried across blackened soil and mockingbirds, cardinals, and other birds flitted about among the branches of hardwoods and Ashe junipers (cedars) that escaped the fire.

In fact, it’s likely that Possum Kingdom State Park’s ecological health has been helped more than hurt by the wildfire, primarily by removing much of the dense forest of invasive cedars that covered much of the park, crowding out native vegetation that helps support a greater diversity of plant and animal life. In their place will sprout native grasses, wildflowers, and fire-adapted shrubs and trees. A number of the park’s stately oaks, too, survived the fire, some showing slight damage on their lower limbs.

“I think this was Mother Nature’s way of taking care of things that needed taking care of here, although it was a harsh way to do it,” Holland said.

It is not yet known when the park will reopen, but when it does, visitors who can look beyond the charred tree trunks where the worst burns occurred, will be able to observe as much wildlife as ever and enjoy greater biological diversity than before the fire.

Other benefits from the fire are becoming obvious, according to the park superintendent. The fire opened up public access to a number of unknown, pre-existing hiking trails in the park’s western uplands area, as well as several new scenic overlooks along the park roads. Holland says the fire also creates an opportunity to restore the natural habitat to look more like it did 100 years ago before cedar spread into the Brazos River Valley canyonlands.

“We can now see a lot of trails we didn’t know were there,” Holland said. “We’ve probably doubled our trail system.”

Campers will find the three camping areas on the east side of the park much as they’ve always been. Firefighters kept the fire from reaching any of the 97 campsites, picnic tables or the campground’s four restrooms, though charred cedar skeletons and groundcover exist just beyond the edge of several campsites where the wildfire advanced before being beaten back.  Crews on Thursday began clearing and chipping up downed trees and branches in the camping areas.

The park entrance itself, park headquarters building and grounds, state park store and marina, and adjacent lakeside camping area and swimming beach remain green and untouched by the fire, ready to welcome the thousands of visitors this summer who will come to seek relief from the heat and urban crowds.

RM 2011-04-29

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