Sorting through the destruction from several wildfires, Texans brace for more
By David Montgomery
Corey Hull, sporting a ball cap and a grayish-brown beard that flowed down to his belt line, spent Saturday tending to the needs of his townfolk. Standing outside a church that had been converted into a depository for donations, Hull, the mayor of Carbon, a tiny community west of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, was helping oversee the distribution of items ranging from diapers to bottled water.
He was also still trying to absorb the devastation that befell his town of just over 200 people.
“Some people lost everything,” he said. “It doesn’t seem fair.”
Carbon was among the communities hit the hardest by several wildfires in Texas that began Thursday and that has killed one deputy officer, destroyed dozens of homes and threatened hundreds of others. Parts of western and central Texas remained under an elevated fire threat Saturday as crews worked to battle the blazes.
The Eastland Complex fire, consisting of four separate fires in a region west of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, had burned more than 54,000 acres and was 30% contained by Saturday afternoon, according to the Texas A&M Fire Service. Estimates of the number of homes destroyed ranged from more than 50 to nearly 90, according to local officials who were assessing damage Saturday.
The fires, among at least 10 that have broken out in the state since Thursday, have led to the evacuations of nearly 500 homes.
Conditions appeared to improve throughout Saturday, but officials worried about a possible change in weather conditions Sunday that could elevate the fire danger, said Matthew Ford, a spokesperson for the forest service.
An increase of high winds could fan the flames through the remainder of the weekend, he said. Forecasters were also calling for the possibility of rain, which was both good news and bad. Rain could dampen the fires but could also come with lightning that could spark new outbreaks.
Firefighting crews were protecting structures and building fire-containment lines, and planes dropped water and fire-retardant chemicals in the area, the forest service said. Gov. Greg Abbott ordered disaster declarations in 11 counties Friday night as the wildfire threat widened.
Firefighters, emergency personnel and volunteers have rushed to help local crews. Volunteers from nearly 58 fire departments were on hand to supplement state and local units, said Seth Christensen, chief of media and communication for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. At least 14 state agencies have deployed crews and equipment.
One of the people who responded, Barbara Fenley, a deputy with the Eastland County Sheriff’s Office, died Friday while trying to save victims from the fires, authorities said.
Carbon, just south of Eastland, Texas, is believed to draw its name in part from the oil discoveries of the early 20th century that turned communities like nearby Ranger into fabled boom towns. The rural community is home to farmers, cattle entrepreneurs, small business owners and commuters to jobs in bigger towns.
On Saturday, Carbon residents were left without water or power. Many people whose homes burned down were staying with friends or in shelters. Individuals, churches and businesses were dropping off donations of goods and money.
Hull, 47, the mayor, who works as a metal worker in Eastland and is a music minister of the Carbon Community Baptist Church, did not lose his home. But the fire burned others nearby, and the streets of Carbon and surrounding landscape offered abundant evidence of the disaster.
Michael Williams, an auto technician who works in Breckenridge more than 30 miles away, said he raced back to Carbon after his father called him at about 5 p.m. Thursday to tell him that his town was under an evacuation order, with a torrent of flames bearing down.
Williams, a member of the Carbon City Council, arrived home to find that his family had been evacuated, but conditions were so severe because of the approaching flames that he was unable to go into the house to save anything other than his two dogs, Pepper and Wrangler. Although he had been driving in daylight, the smoke was so dense when he reached home that “you couldn’t see the road in front of you,” Williams recalled. “It was like somebody turned out the lights.”
Williams and his wife, Shelby, and their two children spent the night in a friend’s house and returned early the next day to find what he said was an unimaginable scene of devastation. Their wood-frame house, which they purchased five years ago and were in the process of remodeling, had been leveled to the ground.
“It’s very disheartening,” he said in an interview as friends called on his cellphone to ask how they could help.
All the contents inside a steel-frame shop had been destroyed, including six dirt bikes and two three-wheelers. A pickup truck was ruined, its aluminum wheels melted into puddles. But the biggest loss, he said, was the destruction of everything he and his wife had gathered through 13 years of marriage — guns his grandfather gave him, a World War I helmet, dolls, jewelry and thousands of photos. In the ashes, however, he was able to salvage a ring that had belonged to his wife’s grandmother.
Amid the ruins of his home, Williams talked about looking ahead, saying that it did not make sense to dwell on what has been lost. “It’s happened,” he said.
In fact, he added, “I’m optimistic” about the future. “With our friends and God, we’re going to pull right through this.”