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‘Like a bomb went off’: Residents pick up the pieces after wildfire consumes Texas town

The Eastland Complex fire started late Thursday afternoon, and, in less than three hours, turned at least 86 houses in Carbon to piles of rubble.

By Jamie Landers

The Eastland Complex
The Eastland Complex fire swept through Carbon on Thursday, leaving a trail of destruction. / Photo Credit: Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer

CARBON — Under an ashen sky, Wendy Forbus tried to keep busy Saturday.

She’s many things to the tight-knit community of Carbon — a business owner, a pastor, and, most importantly on this solemn morning, the fire chief’s wife.

As she loaded cases of water into the back of a pickup, her husband, Jody, was in a helicopter hundreds of feet above, surveying the damage from a blaze that singed more than 85% of the town about 120 miles west of Dallas.

No one can say for sure, but a local farmer believes he witnessed the beginning of the end as a gust of wind knocked down the power lines hovering over a street. Everyone can agree, though, that one spark was all it took.

“The fire jumped from field to field like it had a life of its own,” Wendy Forbus said. “Everywhere you turn, it looks like a bomb went off. I’ve seen this place up in smoke before, but never quite like this.”

The couple lost their home in a fiery haze in 2006, and Jody Forbus promised that if flames ever threatened the life they’d rebuilt, he’d be the one to protect them. He joined the fire department shortly after.

Charred bikes sit
Charred bikes sit among the rubble of a home on Saturday in Carbon. / Photo Credit: Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer

The Eastland Complex fire started late Thursday afternoon, and, in less than three hours, turned at least 86 houses in Carbon to piles of rubble — a substantial figure in a place with a population of just 225.

On Saturday evening, the cluster of four fires had burned more than 54,000 acres and was 15% contained. It has forced evacuations in a number of cities, and it killed Eastland County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Barbara Fenley as she went door to door to help people flee — so far, the only death attributed to the fires.

“We are sorrowful for her loss of life,” Gov. Greg Abbott said of Fenley during a news conference Friday evening, where he signed a disaster declaration for 11 counties, including Eastland. “But we have great appreciation for her service, for stepping up and doing what Texas law enforcement officials do every single day.

“They put their lives on the line to preserve and to protect their communities. And that’s exactly what she did.”

The destruction
The destruction left behind after the Eastland Complex fire swept through Carbon includes burned-out vehicles. / Photo Credit: Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer

Fenley’s death hit close to home for Wendy Forbus, who kept her phone glued to her hand, hoping to hear her husband’s voice each time it rang.

It was almost noon when she learned that the fire department’s only generator had gone out, threatening not only to spoil the refrigerated food meant to serve first responders from 13 state agencies and 48 local fire departments — but also the lifeline allowing them all to communicate until power is restored.

“It’s like a nightmare here,” she said. “We can only do the best with what we’ve been given, but it feels like every time you think the worst is behind you, more gets taken.”

‘Hell on earth’

On Thursday night, paramedic Chris Gibson came in from Erath County, about 40 miles to the east. Embers lined nearly every street, and the smoke was so thick he couldn’t make out the face of a person standing directly in front of him.

“If you can picture hell on earth, that’s what Carbon looked like,” Gibson said. “It happened so fast, it didn’t even matter we were there. The city was left to fend for itself.”

A fallen street
A fallen street sign rests against other debris. / Photo Credit: Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer

The flames have since run cold, but Gibson said it will be days before anyone in Carbon sleeps through the night, each howl of wind a reminder that the only thing stopping this from happening again is “sheer, blind luck.”

“Things like trees can smolder for weeks, and the humidity isn’t nearly as high as we expected,” he said. “We are far from in the clear, so we wait for what we hope never comes.”

Fire crews made progress containing the blazes Saturday, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service, but gusty winds were expected to return Sunday and raise the fires’ threat.

First responders were already growing tired, some detailing back-to-back 20-hour shifts since Wednesday, when smaller fires began popping up in neighboring counties. Gibson said the smoke inhalation was getting to them, and he expects respiratory infections to slow them down in the weeks to come.

“There’s something to be said about firefighters in Texas: They never, ever give up,” he said. “I wish they didn’t have to prove it like this.”

‘16 years down the drain’

Seth Griffin knelt on the ground, glass crunching and metal screeching under his legs with every move. He was sifting through the rubble of what was once his parents’ home, still referring to the pile to his right as the living room, where he started his search for anything still in one piece.

Griffin’s father died from COVID-19 in August, and after leaving his mom safe about 10 miles to the northwest in Cisco, he tried to make it to the house to grab what he could.

It was too late.

“When I finally got here, the fire was only a block away,” Griffin said. “I knew I wouldn’t survive if I went inside. That’s 16 years down the drain.”

Seth Griffin sorts
Seth Griffin sorts through the ashes of his mother’s home in Carbon. / Photo Credit: Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer

All around him Saturday were things that now exist only as memories: The shell of a Nikon camera, a bucket of collectable coins, half of a trampoline his kids used to adore.

Children explored the neighborhood in a pack, taking it all in. They pointed at the frames of burned-out cars, blackened sheets of grass beneath them as they walked. Across the street, an injured dog nestled against another that didn’t make it.

Griffin could hear the kids’ gasps and called for them to come back, afraid of what else they might find. He said he wasn’t ready to think about it, any of it, so he began searching the bedroom, tossing what he believed to be a piece of the oven into a pile he considered junk.

In the distance, sirens started up again, and everyone turned. A 4-year-old boy began to cry.

“This is no way to see the world — your world,” Griffin said. “But I can’t change it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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