SENIOR WRITER SUZANNE FREEMAN
A major wildfire in August 2018 that blackened 600 acres of Hill Country land, including 300 acres in Inks Lake State Park, sparked regrowth and rejuvenation just weeks after emergency crews extinguished it. More than a year later, the park’s primitive camping areas and hiking trails most affected by the natural disaster have made a full recovery with only the skeletons of dead trees left as testament to the flames.
“The park couldn’t be any better as far as recovery,” said Inks Lake State Park Superintendent Corey Evans. “The timing of the fall rains (in 2018) was perfect. We had soft, light rains throughout the winter and spring. Wildflower season was one of the most spectacular we’ve had in years. The only bad thing is that we did lose some of the larger oaks.”
The prognosis was dire when the fire first sparked to life on private land across County Road 116 from the park. Assistant Park Ranger Shawn Greene was in charge as Evans was on vacation at the time. The flames moved so quickly that local firefighters were unable to contain it by themselves. Other departments, including from out of state, quickly jumped in to help — just in time, Greene said.
“When the outside groups arrived, that was the tipping point,” he said. “We had enough boots on the ground then to stop it, but it was close.”
In fact, help arrived within 10 minutes — and 300 feet — of flames reaching the park ranger’s home.
“Our greatest fear was losing structures,” said Greene, adding that the park only lost a deer blind. “Also, we were worried about the safety of the people. It was peak season, and the park was full.”
Once the fire jumped CR 116, rangers began evacuations. Campers had been forewarned of the possibility and were mostly packed up. Equipment was relocated, and volunteers were on site watering down structures and preparing to protect park property.
The area around Stumpy Hollow received the most damage, especially lost trees. The Fisherman’s Trails, Lake Trail, Woodland Trail, Connecting Trail, and Pecan Flats Trail were closed for three months while rangers assessed damage.
The trails, though fully open since November 2018, retain the most scars.
“People who are here to camp or enjoy the water recreation are not going to be affected too much by the fire’s aftermath,” Evans said. “If they’re looking for that memory of the hiking trail they took five years ago, it’s going to look a lot different.”
Different, but not necessarily bad.
“It’s a lot more open now,” he continued. “You’ll be able to see more of gneiss and granite outcroppings because of the lack of vegetation. You won’t be walking through tree canopies like before. … You’ll see a lot more of the open landscape.”
Evans and Greene count that as one of several silver linings to a terrifying near disaster.
Even the October flood, coming a little over two months after the fires, had a silver lining for the park, they agreed. Flooded camping areas forced the park to close for two weeks but allowed staff to focus on recovering from both disasters. And since grasses regrew on the charred landscape so quickly, heavy rains did not erode the soil as initially feared.
The wildfire, in fact, acted much like a prescribed burn, which was long overdue for the park, Evans said. The good news: The blaze moved so quickly that it didn’t take out as many of the large oaks as it could have. The bad news: Over the most intense two hours, with flames rising 40-50 feet above the tree line, the fire took more trees than park officials would have liked.
However, nutrients from burned vegetation seeped into the soil, enriching it, killing off invasive and unhealthy vegetation, and allowing for an explosion of wildflowers. Where brown grasses and weeds had burst into orange flames, leaving behind charcoal black, yellow coreopsis stretched as far as the eye could see through spring and early summer.
“The hills were golden,” Evans said.
One year later, the landscape was again brown and under a burn ban because of dry weather conditions. Still, spots of green dotted the landscape. Blackened tree limbs outlined against the pale blue Texas sky remain the only sign of fire.
“That’s the thing that takes the longest to recover, the large trees,” Evans said. “But the live oaks will re-sprout. It will take fifty years to have those larger oaks again, but they’ll come back.”
Inks Lake State Park is located at 3630 Park Road 4 West in Burnet. For more information on conditions, amenities, camping, and fees, call 512-793-2223 or visit tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/inks-lake.