Abbott issues disaster declaration as Texas homes are ravaged by wildfires

The declaration applies to 11 counties, three weeks after wildfires began in parts of central Texas and a sheriff’s deputy was killed.

Updated: March 20, 2022 - 3:06pm

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 11 counties three weeks after wildfires began in parts of central Texas and a sheriff’s deputy was killed on Thursday.

“Wildfires that began on February 23, 2022, pose an imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property in Brooks, Brown, Coleman, Comanche, Eastland, Grayson, Mason, Potter, Randall, Reynolds, and Williamson counties,” the governor’s March 18 disaster declaration states.

The National Weather Service reports that western and central Texas remain under an elevated fire risk due to high winds, low humidity, and drought conditions.

There are currently 132 counties with outdoor burn bans in effect, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

A critical fire weather watch is in effect for Sunday for the northern and western parts of South Central Texas, the National Weather Service reports. This also includes Medina, Bandera, Kendall, Kerr, Gillespie and Uvalde counties.

Texans are encouraged to remain weather-aware and practice wildfire safety, especially in areas where burn bans are active, the Texas Department of Emergency Management warned. The department has published fire safety resources.

In the historic county of Eastland, located off of I-20 between Abilene and Fort Worth, multiple wildfires have combined into the Eastland Complex.

On Thursday, after fires moved into the tiny town of Carbon, Texas, Eastland County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Barbara Fenley went door-to-door checking on residents. She wouldn’t make it home.

“With the extreme deteriorating conditions and low visibility from smoke, Sgt. Fenley ran off the roadway and was engulfed in the fire,” the sheriff's office said in a statement. “Sgt. Fenley gave her life in the service of others and loved her community.”

Fenley, 51, is survived by her husband and three children.

On Friday, three weeks after wildfires reportedly began, Abbott received a briefing from local and state officials in Eastland on wildfire activity and ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff in honor of Deputy Sgt. Fenley. He also waived vehicle size, weight, and permitting requirements to enable the transport of hay and feed to reach ranchers and farmers in dire straits.

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension also announced, “There is an urgent need for localized relief in the form of feed, hay and fencing supplies for our fellow Texans suffering though the Eastland Complex and surrounding area wildfires.”

Those able to drop off feed, hay and fencing supplies are encouraged to do so at Gorman Milling Co. Inc. in Gorman, Texas.

As of 8 pm on March 18, the Eastland Complex had destroyed 45,383 acres and was 15% contained. “Aviation resources including three large air tankers, helicopters and three fireboss single engine air tankers,” Texas A&M Forest Service reported. “Crews focused on structure protection and building containment line with dozers. Aircraft dropped water/retardant to help slow fire spread and protect structures.”

As of 9 am March 19, Texas A&M Forest Service reported that the Kidd Fire was an estimated 34,000 acres and 15% contained; Oak Mott Fire was an estimated 6,000 acres, 50% contained; Wheat Field Fire an estimated 5,000 acres, 25% contained; Walling Fire was 383 acres, 100% contained.

The state “has been working with local officials to respond to these critical fire conditions,” Abbott said. "I commend the hard work and selfless acts of thousands of first responders and fire fighters who are risking their own lives to protect our communities.

“I also ask Texans to join me in praying for those who have been affected by these wildfires, including Eastland County Deputy Barbara Fenley who was tragically killed while trying to save lives. We will never forget her sacrifice, and the state will continue to work closely with first responders and local leaders to mitigate these fires and support our communities as they recover."

Smoke from the fires had traveled roughly 300 miles south to Houston by Friday. The Houston Fire Department and Houston Office of Emergency Management issued an automated alert to residents warning them of increased smoke and ash in the air.

As of Saturday, more than 50 homes had been destroyed in Eastland County, a 103-year-old church in Ranger, Texas, was destroyed, and 70 square miles had been scorched.

About 18,000 people live in the county named after William Mosby Eastland, a Texas Revolution soldier. Eastland was famously the only officer killed by the Mexican Army during the Black Bean execution of 1843. After the Mexican-American War, Eastland’s and the others’ remains were buried in a grave at Monument Hill in La Grange, Texas.