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Texas Firefighter Crews Work to Contain Wildfire Outbreaks

March 22, 2022 by Reece Nations
Flames quickly spread through dry grass west of Abilene, Texas, near Old Highway 80 Thursday, March 17, 2022. (Ronald W. Erdrich/The Abilene Reporter-News via AP)

EASTLAND, Texas — Numerous wildfires that broke out last week are still being suppressed by firefighting crews in west-central and southwest Texas.

Over the weekend, three new wildfire ignitions in Eastland County, west of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, were absorbed into the Eastland Complex for management purposes, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The Eastland Complex is composed of seven individual fires throughout the region, each of which varies in its degree of containment. Fire authorities indicated the complex was collectively 60% contained as of Tuesday.

“We’re being kind of cautious on the containment right now, because we wanted to wait and see what the moisture was going to bring in before we up the percentage of containment,” Mary Leathers, public information officer for the Texas A&M Forest Service, said. “So that’s where we’re at now. There are approximately 500 resources assigned to these seven fires.”

The Eastland Complex fires include the Walling, Wheat Field, Kidd, Oak Mott, Blowing Basin, Mangum and Cedar Mountain Fires. The largest of these fires was the Kidd Fire near Carbon, Texas, which scorched 42,333 acres, and the total structure loss for the complex is currently 158.

Since last week, crews have responded to and worked to extinguish 178 wildfires that burned over 108,000 acres across Texas. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an emergency order in 11 counties on Friday in response to the outbreaks, and Lipan, Texas, residents were urged to evacuate before the order was lifted on Monday.

Evacuation orders are still in effect for multiple areas in Eastland County, and around 475 homes in the City of Gorman were evacuated. Lake Leon, roughly 11 miles southeast of Eastland, has also been evacuated. 

“We didn’t get as much rain as we had hoped, so the firefighters are continuing to staff those fires and we’re starting to see a little activity as the clouds turn away and the sun comes out,” Leathers told The Well News. “All of these fires are staffed. There are firefighters and equipment out there on these fires at this time.”

Thirty-four aviation resources are currently being utilized as part of the containment operations, according to the forest service. Three large air tankers, 15 single-engine air tankers, four air attack platforms, two aerial supervision modules, three type 1 helicopters, two type 3 helicopters, four Blackhawks, one Chinook and one multi-mission aircraft have all been dispatched to curb the spread of the blazes.

The fires were blamed for the death of Deputy Sgt. Barbara Fenley of the Eastland County Sheriff’s Office, who died while assisting with evacuations. Two firefighters with the Hood County Fire Department were injured while fighting the Big L fire, which encompassed 10,366 acres and was 70% contained as of Monday.

While Leathers said the cause of the significant outbreak of wildfire activity was still under investigation and had yet to be determined, one person had been arrested on five counts of felony arson on Saturday in the community of Ranger, Texas. This year’s fire season has been an especially active one so far, Leathers told The Well News.

The Texas A&M Forest Service, alongside the National Weather Service, watches each year for a dangerous fire weather phenomenon known as a Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak, Leathers said. These dangerous weather events are characterized by dry vegetation, dry west-southwest winds across an area with relatively low humidity, above-average temperatures on the ground, and an unstable atmosphere along with clear, sunny skies.

Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreaks occur more often in La Niña years, as the oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon causes warmer and drier than usual conditions for Texas during the winter and spring months. When underlying drought combines with dryness, elevated wind speeds, dead grasses and an abundance of vegetation across the landscape, this leads to conditions conducive to increased wildfire activity, Texas A&M Forest Service spokesperson Erin O’Connor told The Well News.

“The extreme conditions present across the state last week greatly impacted several communities and the Texans that live there,” Wes Moorehead, Texas A&M Forest Service Fire Chief, said in a written statement. “These communities endured significant loss and we grieve with you.

“First responders from across the state, even the country, have answered the call for assistance,” he continued. “The tremendous response effort over the past four days has been nothing short of remarkable.” 

Reece can be reached at reece@thewellnews.com

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