Image: Firefighter Ron Riise, from the U.S. Forest Service in California, pulls a burning stump to a safer spot north of Ranger, Texas
Rodger Mallison  /  AP
Firefighter Ron Riise, from the U.S. Forest Service in California, pulls a burning stump to a safer spot north of Ranger, Texas, as wildfires continue to burn west of Fort Worth.
updated 4/22/2011 6:12:57 PM ET 2011-04-22T22:12:57

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.

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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.

Story: Texas governor urges rain prayers as wildfire battles continue

The blaze is one of several burning in the drought-stricken state. Since Jan. 1, wildfires have scorched more than 1.4 million acres in the state and led to the deaths of two firefighters.

Also on Friday, fire crews in West Texas continued to battle 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. Firefighters were trying to stop it from spreading out of a canyon, said CJ Novell, a spokeswoman with the federal firefighting management team called in to help with the West Texas blazes.

Image: This aerial photograph shows a large home left in ashes on Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas.
Ron T. Ennis  /  AP
This aerial photograph shows a large home left in ashes on Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas.

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 Possum Kingdom 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."

One home in the area was destroyed except for three scorched walls left standing — and its garage untouched by the flames. A stone fireplace was the only thing 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.

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Video: Texas wildfires swallow homes, force evacuations

  1. Closed captioning of: Texas wildfires swallow homes, force evacuations

    >> the wildfires now racing across the state of texas which burned more than a million acres so far. janua janet shamlian has the latest.

    >> reporter: 11 new fires in texas this morning. they have burned homes and businesses like this restaurant to the ground and scorched a land area roughly the size of rhode island . from the air you can see how the flames raced across the state fuelled by high winds and temperatures in the 90s. they show no sign of slowing down. they could use some rain here, but there is very little of it in the forecast. they have help coming from 34 states. but, natalie, they still feel outmanned by the fires. back to you.

    >> we can hear the winds there. something tells me it will be a battle for a while there.

    >> reporter: it will be.

    >> janet shamlian , thank you.

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