1 Year Later: North Texans Reflect on Eastland Complex Fires, Look Ahead to Future Fire Seasons

2022 ushered in the third-largest fire season on record in Texas

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On March 17, 2022, fires ignited one-by-one across Eastland County as a cold front produced strong winds, dry air and warm temperatures that brought a worst-case scenario to life.

“We had forecast an event on May 17. It’s what we anticipated as a wildfire outbreak,” said Texas A&M Forest Service Predictive Services Department Head Brad Smith.

Smith said the fire season began escalating in late January with a lack of rain and extremely dry conditions.

On the morning of March 17, the Forest Service issued a warning of “extremely critical conditions.”

As a fire ignited near Carbon, Smith was among the first on the ground.

“The first thing I noticed was the name of the community on the sign, Carbon, and it was all blackened because of fire, scorched, scarred. And that just kind of struck me. And then as I drove to town, it was the aftermath. Houses were still burning. The fire department here was doing what they could to protect houses that hadn't burned,” he said.

Branch Fire Coordinator Steven Moore was also there as the incident commander.

“On the way down, I was told I would be taking command of all four fires that were put into the complex. By the end of my four days, it was a total of seven different fires that totaled 54,514,” said Moore.

According to the Forest Service, efforts to suppress the flames were challenged by the high rate of spread and exceptional amounts of dry grass and in both Eastland and Brown counties.

"It’s very overwhelming coming into a fire or complex fire of that magnitude where you're taking on multiple fires and a lot of resources in trying to manage that initial chaos,” he said. "Immediately, I remember requesting additional resources for the next day and starting to plan into the next 24 and 48 hours."

The largest of the Eastland Complex’s seven fires, the Kidd Fire, ripped through more than 42,000 acres, decimating homes, crops and livestock in Carbon.

It killed Eastland County Sheriff's Deputy Sergeant Barbara Fenley, who lost control of her vehicle and became engulfed in a field filled with flames.

The department said she was working to help evacuate people and was on her way to check on an elderly woman.

Ultimately, a team of about 300 personnel from several departments had no choice but to look ahead, turning their focus to nearby Gorman.

There, they worked quickly to get people out of the fire's path.

"To characterize it as a whole, it's very eerie being in these communities in the middle of the night that are about to be impacted with no civilians there, sirens going off, firefighters and law enforcement working their ways around to try to reduce the impacts and save what they can,” said Moore.

Successful evacuations there was a win amongst the devastation.

One year later, evidence of what happened here is still scattered throughout the community.

Charred trees and burned-down structures have kept the Eastland Complex fires fresh on the minds of those who were there.

But the Forest Service is looking ahead, taking the lessons learned here to better predict and manage fire seasons of the future.

"We always think that we can control Mother Nature, in some respects, we can put the fires out. But when you see a fire of that magnitude, that's burned through the town. It's a force of nature,” said Smith.

This season, Smith said conditions are less favorable for fast-moving fires.

Still, Eastland County burned before, back in 2006, and he said the vegetation and climate pose a risk for it to happen again.

But the Eastland Complex, which burned so ferociously it produced flames topping 80 feet, taught those fighting the fires to always stay one step ahead.

"You learned that at some point, you had to take that defensive posture. You can't affect putting the fire out at this time,” said Smith.

Last year, though dozens of homes were destroyed, looking forward saved countless others throughout the three-week event.

Smith says it could do the same in the future.

"I've been here a long time, and I look at our young firefighters. I look at the young forecasters that are in my department, and I want to find a way to convey to them the impacts of what we forecast and what we try to see, why it's so important to let people know when these types of events on the horizon and are coming because it impacts people,” he said.

The Eastland Complex fires were controlled on April 8, 2022.  

They were part of a wildfire outbreak that involved more than 25 fires burning over 100,000 acres and brought together fire crews from all over Texas and several other states.

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