EASTLAND COUNTY, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Saint Patrick’s Day 2022 marked the start of the Eastland Complex fire. It was multiple blazes that would claim more than 50,000 acres of land, dozens of homes, and the life of a beloved Eastland County Sheriff’s deputy. As the Mesquite Heat fire continues to burn in Taylor County, the smoke smells much too familiar for those who lived through the preceding fire, just two months earlier.
“It’s forever etched in our minds, something we’ll never forget, I think,” Carbon Volunteer Fire Chief Jodey Forbus said as he recalled that day.
Carbon was the epicenter of the Eastland Complex when it passed through, leaving behind smoldering homes, grey plots of ash and a community unsure of its next steps. Today, green fields and bright blue skies show no sign of what transpired just weeks before. But the dark, scorched bark of trees licked by fire still stand.
Like the recovering landscape, Chief Forbus said the community is healing as fast as it can.
“A lot of them are frustrated because there was no federal help. There is some state help and other donations just now trickling in,” Chief Forbus said. “Hopefully that will help them rebuild. We really want people to come back to Carbon. It’s just going to take time.”
The massive blaze was largely fueled by high winds, low humidity, and a great supply of dry brush. KTAB Meteorologist Kayleigh Thomas recalled preparing her forecast that weekend as the fire grew from several smaller fires to one large force.
“It feels a little hopeless when you’re just sitting in the Weather Center and you’re just telling people, ‘it’s still going to be dry the next few days, it’s still going to be dry the next few weeks,'” Thomas said.
Those same drought conditions also contributing to the Mesquite Heat Fire, which sparked nearly two months to the day after the Eastland Complex fire. Chief Forbus said an Eastland County Strike Force was sent to assist volunteer fire departments (VFDs) in Taylor County, repaying the helped Carbon needed when they were in dire straits.
“We sent two brush trucks, Rising Star sent a truck, Cisco VFD, and Gorman,” listed Chief Forbus. “We had help from all over the state. It’s the thing you want to do when you see a fire like that. Kicks off your natural reaction, to send help.”
In Gorman, just outside of Carbon, the fire in Taylor County sparked memories for resident Jonathan Fenley, as well.
“I don’t think people realized how fast it spread,” said Fenley.
Flames crept up to the fence of his family’s backyard, Fenley called his mom, Deputy Sargeant Barbara Fenley, and his brother to check in as the fire was quickly pushing him out to safer grounds.
“It was just kind of one of those, ‘ok, I’m directing traffic, I’ll see you later,’ and then I got another phone call from my brother and he says, ‘I’m trapped, I don’t know what we’re going to do,'” Fenley recounted.
Fenley’s brother would get out safely by the end of the night, but the morning would unveil another concern for his family as no one had heard from his mother for several hours.
“Whenever the next morning came and we hadn’t heard from her, we were worried,” said Fenley. “I think my stepdad put in a call to dispatch or another deputy. They got a search started and within 45 minutes to an hour, they found her.”
Sgt. Fenley was found, succumbing to the fire overnight while evacuating residents. She made the ultimate sacrifice an officer can to keep others safe.
“I have two kids now and another little cousin that loved her to death, and not seeing her interact with them has been one of the hardest things,” Fenley revealed.
His mother’s story is one to remember during wildfires anywhere. Beyond the headlines and dramatic video are real people. People who sometimes don’t make it home to their people.
“It really just sucks,” Fenley said. “Losing her smile. Losing the person she was.”
With responders still out, ready to make that same sacrifice if needed, the son of a fallen officer wishes them well. And to come home safely.
“To all the firemen, police officers: stay safe. I know they’re doing their job, though. I just hope no one else has to go through this,” Fenley added.