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Date : May 17, 2022

A sheriff’s deputy died while helping people evacuate as central Texas wildfire spread

The Eastland Complex blaze in Texas had charred more than 45,300 acres by Friday.

A central Texas sheriff’s deputy died Thursday while going door-to-door and helping people evacuate as several wildfires ravaged the area, authorities said.

Deputy Sgt. Barbara Fenley, 51, was assisting evacuation efforts in Carbon and was last heard from when she was on her way to check on an elderly person, the Eastland County Sheriff’s Office said. But with deteriorating conditions and low visibility from the smoke, Fenley ran off the roadway and was killed by the flames, the office said.

“Sgt. Fenley gave her life in the service of others and loved her community,” it added. Fenley is survived by her husband and three children, the sheriff’s office said. “She will be deeply missed.”

Gov. Greg Abbott signed a disaster declaration Friday evening for 11 Texas counties, including Eastland, and said more counties may be added to the list as needed. Dozens of homes were lost in the flames and shelters were open for impacted residents, while authorities focused on containing the blazes, the governor said during a news conference.

Deputy Sgt. Barbara Fenley began her law enforcement career in 2003 as a patrol officer with the city of Gorman, the Eastland County Sheriff’s Office said.

The Eastland Complex blaze, a combination of four fires in the middle of the state, reached more than 45,380 acres by late afternoon Friday, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The blaze was 15% contained by Friday night, the service said.

The complex is among multiple wildfires scorching areas across the state amid dry and windy conditions. The forest service said it responded to 10 wildfires Thursday, with more than 52,700 acres burned throughout Texas.

Winds across central Texas are expected to slow Saturday, but will likely strengthen again Sunday, CNN meteorologist Gene Norman said. But rain in the forecast Monday could help in knocking remaining flames down.

“One message that I would like to exaggerate and express is that we are not out of danger yet for our high hazard fire risk,” Eastland Fire Chief Joe Williamson said during Friday’s news conference. “So we just ask that the community take sincere caution in your outdoor activities and practice fire safety.”

A family walks through smoke Thursday after evacuating a mobile home park in Abilene, Texas.

Dozens of homes lost

At least 50 homes had been lost in the flames by Friday across three communities that were under evacuation orders a day earlier, Abbott said during a Friday evening news conference.

“Probably as we are able to better surveil damages here in the coming days we will find more than that,” the governor said.

The Eastland Complex prompted the orders across parts of Eastland, Brown and Comanche counties Thursday, CNN previously reported. Residents of those communities were allowed to return Friday, forest service spokesperson Angel Lopez told CNN Friday afternoon. All three counties were included in the governor’s declaration Friday.

One family in Carbon found just ashes and rubble when they returned home. Debbie Copeland posted a video on Facebook sharing what she saw when she returned early Friday: nothing there but the home’s sidewalk. Her family told CNN affiliate WFAA they had lived in the home for more than two decades.

A neighbor lost her home too, the affiliate reported.

“We did lose a lot of Carbon, Texas,” Eastland County Judge Rex Fields said during Friday’s news conference. “It’s devastating.”

Structures in Carbon were “heavily impacted” Thursday afternoon when one of the four blazes — the Kidd Fire — passed through, officials said in a Friday morning update on the national Inciweb wildfire information system. Thursday night, roughly 475 homes were evacuated in Gorman, also Eastland County.

The Kidd Fire, by far the biggest of the four in the complex, started Thursday and has charred roughly 33,000 acres. It was 1% contained Friday.

In the small town of Ranger, about 10 miles northeast of Eastland, a church and several downtown buildings burned Thursday, affiliate KTVT reported.

“I’ve been fire chief here 40 years and when you have something like this… it hurts. It hurts the whole community,” Ranger Fire Department Chief Darrell Fox said. “This church had been here for 100 years.”

At least one other fire of the complex, the Oak Mott Fire, burned close to the town of Rising Star, according to Friday’s Inciweb update. There were “multiple reports of structures saved through efforts of responders,” the update said, but officials said during Friday night’s news conference the town was continuing to face threats from the flames.

A woman waits for her companions to retrieve belongings from their home on Thursday as an Abilene police officer checks on other people evacuating a mobile home park.

The forest service also said early Friday morning another blaze in nearby Runnels and Coleman counties had burned roughly 7,500 acres and was 80% contained.

The Coleman Fire Department said early Friday morning Highway 153, which was previously closed to nonemergency personnel incoming traffic, was reopened and residents would be able to return to their homes, urging those coming back to “stay alert and aware.”