Dozens of local, county and state crews were struggling to contain a cluster of wildfires about 120 miles west of Fort Worth on Friday. Fueled by wind and dry conditions, the largest of the fires had swelled to over 45,000 acres, burning dozens of homes, forcing evacuations in Abilene and other towns, and killing a sheriff’s deputy who was helping people flee.
At a news conference Friday evening, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a disaster declaration for 11 counties and said more could be added as the situation develops.
Strong winds and drought conditions have created challenges for firefighters battling the blaze, Abbott said. Aircraft are flying over the affected areas as part of containment efforts, a measure that powerful winds prevented on Thursday, Abbott said.
The majority of the damage has been in Eastland, Comanche and Brown counties, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The towns of Rising Star and Gorman were at high risk, and officials urged remaining residents to evacuate.
Update: the #EastlandComplex in Eastland County is an estimated 45,383 acres and 15% contained. Crews focused on structure protection and building containment line with dozers today. Aircraft dropped water/retardant to help slow fire spread and protect structures. #txfire pic.twitter.com/WuiSOSvEoA
— Incident Information – Texas A&M Forest Service (@AllHazardsTFS) March 19, 2022
“The state and local governments are doing everything possible to be able to better contain these fires and putting a primary focus on making sure we do everything possible to save human lives,” Abbott said.
Thirteen state agencies and 48 local fire departments from 22 counties were working to extinguish the blaze as of Friday evening, Abbott said.
“We cannot underscore enough that there is danger that remains in the surrounding areas,” Abbott said.
At Friday’s news conference, Abbott presented the family of Eastland County sheriff’s deputy Barbara Fenley a state flag that had been flown over the capital. Fenley was killed overnight trying to save people from the fire, the Cisco Police Department said.
“We are sorrowful for her loss of life,” Abbott said. “But we have great appreciation for her service, for stepping up and doing what Texas law enforcement officials do every single day. They put their lives on the line to preserve and to protect their communities. And that’s exactly what she did.”
Jon Fenley, Barbara Fenley’s son, told WFAA-TV that he would miss his mother’s smile and the way she was with her grandchildren.
“She paid the ultimate sacrifice just to help people out,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing I’d like people to know.”
This is Jon Fenley.
In his own words, he tells me what he wants people to know about his mom–that she was brave and he’s proud of her.
— Matt Howerton (@HowertonNews) March 19, 2022
No other injuries have been reported, but authorities are continuing to sweep affected areas, officials said.
Smoke and ash from the “Eastland Complex” fire, a cluster of four separate blazes spanning over 45,000 acres, traveled as far as Houston, The Associated Press reported. The fire was 15% contained as of 9 p.m. As of 8 p.m., one of the four fires in the cluster had been fully contained.
Six other fires in Archer, Kleberg, Maverick, Mills, Randall and Sterling counties were contained by the afternoon, the forest service said.
While the Texas A&M Forest Service’s Lone Star State Incident Management Team hasn’t declared the initial cause of the wildfires, it said in a Facebook post Thursday that “strong winds and critically dry grasses contributed to extreme fire behavior and rapid rates of spread across the landscape.”
The forest service also warned that the fires could affect parts of Oklahoma and Kansas, The Associated Press reported.
The fires prompted mandatory evacuations in Eastland County, including the towns of Gorman and Rising Star, and northern Taylor County, which includes Abilene. At least five shelters have opened in area churches and schools for evacuees, and the Texas Cattle Exchange in Eastland has resources for livestock and other animals.
Abbott said the American Red Cross was working to find shelter to those who have been displaced.
‘There’s nothing left’
The Eastland County town of Carbon, which has a population of less than 300 people, was among the areas hit hardest, officials said.
In a 5-minute video posted to Facebook, resident Debbie Copeland showed what was left of her home after the fires.
“Six in the morning and we just came out to look at what’s left … and there’s nothing left,” Copeland said. “My sidewalk is left.”
The video shows parts of the home still burning and Copeland having to yell over the wind.
“A whole whole lot of Carbon people lost everything they had,” she said. “It looks a little bit like a bomb site.”
Several North Texas firefighters were deployed to Eastland County on Friday, including Capt. Brian Roach of the McKinney Fire Marshal’s Office, two members of Dallas Fire-Rescue and eight members of the Grand Prairie Fire Department. Eight firefighters from Fort Worth were also deployed, KRLD-AM (1080) reported.
Multiple structure fires were reported in Ranger, about 90 miles west of Fort Worth. Flames destroyed the town’s 103-year-old church, the police department and other buildings, WFAA-TV reported.
“We knew coming into today, we had that red-flag warning. We had everything ready throughout the county,” Fire Chief Darrell Fox told WFAA. “But when we have the winds like there was today and the humidity down [to] nothing, this is what you’re going to get.”
It isn’t known how many structures have burned in the fires, the AP reported.
“Until we get more boots on the ground, we don’t have an estimate” of the numbers, said Matthew Ford, spokesman for Texas A&M Forest Service. “Our top priority is life, safety and protection of structures.”