A string of fires in West Texas have claimed the life of a law enforcement official, burned at least 50 homes, and devoured more than 45,000 acres, officials said Friday.
On Thursday, Sgt. Barbara Finley of the Eastland County Sheriff’s Office was evacuating residents in the town of Carbon when she drove to check on an elderly neighbor nearby, the office said. Her vehicle ran off the road and was engulfed in flames, killing the nearly 20-year sheriff’s veteran, it said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered flags in Eastland County at half mast and presented a member of Finley’s family Friday with a flag flown over the state Capitol.
“We have great appreciation for her service,” Abbott said.
The four fires that make up the Eastland Complex Fire — the Kidd, Wheat Field, Oak Mott and Walling fires — have burned 45,383 acres, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. The fire was only 15 percent contained late Friday.
All started Thursday except the Walling Fire, which started Wednesday, according to federal officials.
The blazes prompted wide evacuations in and around Eastland County, about 130 miles west of Dallas, including an evacuation order for the entire city of Gorman, federal officials said. That order, as of early Friday, applied to an estimated 475 homes, they said.
Eastland County Judge Rex Fields, the jurisdiction’s top elected official, described the aftermath of wildfire in the area as a “lunar landscape.”
“It’s devastating,” he said at a news conference Friday. “We did lose a lot of Carbon, Texas.”
Fifty homes were destroyed in the town, federal incident spokesman Angel Lopez Portillo said.
Several other fires burning in West Texas, including the Chico Lane Fire in Reagan County, Crews Gap Fire in Runnels County, and Edmunson Fire in Sterling County, are mostly contained.
Combined with the Eastland Complex, the active fires across the state have scorched more than 65,000 acres, according to data maintained by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group and state-run Texas A&M Forest Service
Abbott announced emergency declarations Friday for 11 counties that have been affected by fires since Feb. 23.
The wildfires are rare for late winter, when rain can stunt their development, but this year precipitation has been scarce, and temperatures were in the high 70s in many parts of the region Thursday and Friday, according to the National Weather Service.
As fire and emergency authorities warned that there could be more fire to come, Abbott said rain was his main hope.
“The hope was the spring rains would arrive before the fires did,” he said, with the new season arriving Sunday. “That did not work out. There is the anticipation of spring rains coming that should lessen the possibility for future fires at least in the short term.”
Weather Service meteorologist Monique Sellers said rain could come to the vast region of ranches and native grasslands Monday, but not before some of the same conditions that underpinned the week’s blazes return.
Those included sustained winds overnight of up to 30 mph, with gusts of 45 mph, Sellers said. Temperatures could also return to the 70s and even 80s, she said.
Officials hoped Friday that the worst could be behind them with winds settling down for the night.
Winds had been high enough Thursday that aircraft temporarily could not be used safely or effectively, Abbott said. They include six airplanes and three helicopters assigned to the Eastland Complex Fire alone.
The hardware could be needed more than ever. Sellers said the weekend’s conditions for West Texas will likely result in new fires.
Officials urged residents to heed the call to evacuate. They argued that any last-minute attempts to flee will put first responders’ lives in even more danger as they sometimes have to come to the rescue.
“We are not out of danger yet for our high hazard fire risk,” Eastland Fire Department Chief Joe Williamson said Friday.
“Help us help you by being safe and cautious,” he added.