Weatherford Democrat

August 31, 2011

Flames take aim on lake properties again

By Libby Cluett
Lone Star News Group

WEATHERFORD — PALO PINTO COUNTY — A fire, which eyewitnesses said started sometime between noon and 1 p.m. Tuesday, seemed to take little time to grow into a massive, uncontrollable blaze that resulted in emergency evacuation of The Cliffs Resort.

From its origin on the 101 Ranch, about a mile east of State Highway 16, and just north of the Sportsman’s World Whatburger restaurant, the fire virtually raced north and northwest, fueled by dry cedar and grasses, low humidity levels between 13 to 16 percent, triple-digit heat and strong winds, gusting to 20 mph.

The fire started about seven miles southeast of Possum Kingdom Lake and four miles northeast of Brad, according to the Texas Forest Service.

According to the TFS Fire Information Officer Tom Berglund, the fire was called in at 1:35 p.m. and by 3 p.m., it traveled northwest toward The Cliffs Resort and, as of 4 p.m., had consumed 3,000 acres and threatened a number of homes and other structures.

TFS spokesperson April Saginor said 20 homes had burned as of 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Numerous Palo Pinto County volunteer fire departments responded, as well as TFS resources, including nine aircraft, four task forces and a TFS dozer and tractor plow, Berglund reported.

The fire roared and exploded as it quickly consumed vegetation on the east side of SH 16.

Shortly before 3 p.m., walls of flames up to 100 feet high seemed to take a slightly westerly turn, jumping SH 16 at The Cliffs Resort and threatening the entrance to Gaines Bend, creating a sort of déjà vu for Shawn Gibson of Gaines Bend Development.

Garland Bend and Fortune Bend, both along the Brazos River, and The Cliffs were evacuated, but it seemed to happen so abruptly that some individuals at The Cliffs needed help evacuating by water. Motorboats from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Department and other resources responded to the scene.

Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer said they ran about six to seven boatloads of people and had boats standing by.

By 6:30, Mercer reported that the fire was not contained and stretched for three miles. By 6:45, the fire had reached Neeley’s Slough in The Cliffs.

“It’s in such rough terrain that they can’t fight it in a conventional manner,” Mercer said. “They’re having to fight it from the air and do structural protection.”

He said evacuees, mainly from The Cliffs, were sent by bus to a shelter at the First Baptist Church of Possum Kingdom and to the Harbor Restaurant.

A hot, high wall of flames jumped SH 16 in a couple of places near the entrances to Gaines Bend and The Cliffs, Mercer said, causing authorities to shut down traffic along SH 16 from the Whataburger, to the south, and to Farm-to-Marker Road 2353 to the north.

Mercer said he didn’t know the cause, as of Tuesday evening, but confirmed the fire definitely consumed structures, three of which he saw engulfed by the fire, including the guard shack and the office to The Cliffs.

At one point in the afternoon, Mercer said he was stranded by the fire not far from the entrance to Gaines Bend, and had to go through a pasture fence into Sportsman’s World to escape safely.

Sheriff deputies were asked hourly to give a head count. Mercer said they couldn’t find one of the officers for about 25 minutes when he was evacuating Garland Bend.

He said they were monitoring Sportsman’s World and Gaines Bend, both of which had extensive damage from the PK Complex fires in April.

Mineral Wells Index reporter Chris Agee contributed to this article.