David Lipson sat in his dining room talking on the phone with his son when he smelled the smoke. He grabbed his dog, his gun and a pair of guitars he bought in 1976 – the year he married his wife – and ran out of his home near Gorman, Texas.
Flames from the Eastland Complex were quickly approaching, and from a nearby hilltop Lipson took a last look at his home of more than two decades. It’s where he raised his two youngest sons, took care of his 97-year-old father until his passing in 2018 and where he comforted his wife until she took her last breaths two years later. In a matter of hours, everything was gone.
“Every memory, every picture that I ever had in my whole life. Everything is gone,” Lipson said.
The 64-year-old father of four, now retired after decades as a woodworker, was unable to afford insurance for the house. His son, Bradley, started a GoFundMe in hopes of helping his father rebuild in the same spot.
“The farm has been in our family since the late 1800s,” Bradley Lipson, 27, told CNN. “A lot of the conversations in the past week have been just talking about memories of that home but also looking to the future and what’s to come.”
For parts of central Texas, the Eastland Complex, a combination of seven fires, has been devastating. The flames killed a sheriff’s deputy last Thursday who was on her way to check on an elderly person amid evacuations in the town of Carbon. The cause of the fire is under investigation, officials said.
The blaze has so far scorched more than 54,500 acres. By Saturday evening, it was 90% contained, according to the interagency reporting website InciWeb. On Sunday evening those figures were largely unchanged. The largest of the seven fires, the Kidd Fire, which burned through Carbon, Kokomo and Gorman, wiped out more than 140 structures, according to InciWeb.
As residents of those communities reel from the losses – many of them left with little more than the few items they grabbed on their way out of their home – authorities issued evacuations for other parts of the state Saturday and warned of critical fire weather conditions over the coming days.
A fire warning and mandatory evacuations were in place late Saturday in areas around Medina Lake, including the town of Mico, the National Weather Service said. Medina Lake is about 40 miles northwest of San Antonio.
And more areas across central and South Texas will be under “elevated to critical fire weather conditions” through the next few days, the Texas Division of Emergency Management said. Dry conditions and high temperatures will pose a risk for “significant fires” Sunday through Wednesday in the Western/Eastern Hill Country, South Texas, Rolling Plains, Cross Timbers, Southern Plains and Trans Pecos, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.
“Monday and Tuesday (stand out) as the days of greatest significant fire potential,” the service said.
A red flag warning, indicating an increased fire risk, was in effect for all of west central Texas from late Sunday morning through the evening, the weather service said.
A pair of jeans and heart medication
Carbon, just 10 miles from Gorman and about 100 miles southwest of Fort Worth, was among the hardest hit communities by the Eastland Complex.
The small town, which got its name for the minerals discovered in the area in the late 19th century, is home to roughly 400 people, many of them farmers and ranchers who’ve been there for decades. Most of the town was destroyed, including at least 86 homes, according to a news release from the state attorney general’s office.
Debbie Copeland’s home was among the first houses built in Carbon. Her family bought the house in 1999. In it, they built a lifetime of memories with her three children and eight grandchildren. When authorities came to her door Thursday and urged her to evacuate, Copeland thought back to 2006, when another wildfire forced her family to evacuate. That time, most Carbon homes were spared.
So she decided to take only the essentials: her husband’s CPAP machine, which helps him sleep at night, his heart medication and a pair of jeans so she could switch out the shorts she was wearing. Copeland then headed to her daughter’s house in the city of Eastland, about 10 miles north.
Later that night, she got a text from a friend that read: “I’m so sorry about your house.” The fire swept through their neighborhood and reduced their house – and the other homes on their street – to ashes.
“We have chosen to focus on what we still have, rather than focusing on what we’ve lost,” Copeland, a real estate broker, said. They’re planning to rebuild on the same plot of land, incorporating some of the scraps that survived the flames, like pieces of Copeland’s baby grand piano that once decorated her living room. “We’re going to take some of those pieces and create something beautiful from the ashes.”
Other residents had no time to pick anything up from their home.
José Hernández was at work, his wife and two daughters were at a doctor’s appointment and his son was at college when the blaze swallowed their home. Hernández, who’s lived in Carbon for roughly 25 years and now works as a pipe fitter, attempted to go back, but the roads had been closed as a thick, black smoke overtook the area.
The family cried when they found out what happened to their home, Hernández told CNN. He fears the two dogs they had perished in the flames but hopes they were rescued by someone who may have passed by as the fires approached.
Hunter McLean, who lives close to Carbon and has known the family for several years, started a GoFundMe to help them rebuild a home. “They lost everything,” he said. “And they don’t have insurance, and they’re wonderful people.”
Dozens of other fundraisers were launched in the wake of the blazes, many set up by friends and family of residents who lost their homes and everything inside. “We got decimated,” McLean said of Carbon. Much of his land, which is just a few miles outside of town, was torched, but his home was spared.
In the week since the fire swept through the area, clean up and recovery efforts have been underway with the help of local authorities, residents and volunteers – some of whom came from out of town to help.
“It’s not just that we live in this town, we actually love each other,” Copeland said. “I know people who grew up in Carbon as children who have taken a leave off of their jobs and are now back in Carbon and helping with the relief efforts. Where does that happen?”
Parts of the state still on fire
And as some communities pick up the pieces, others are bracing for potential damage.
In Medina County, officials announced a mandatory evacuation Saturday evening in areas north and northeast of a fire raging near Medina Lake. Later that night, most residents were allowed to go back to their homes but officials warned the mandatory evacuation would likely return Sunday amid another round of “extreme fire weather.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a disaster declaration for Medina County Sunday afternoon, providing state assistance toward extinguishing the wildfire.
He told a news conference that about 200 firefighters were working to put out the fire, which had completely destroyed three homes and damaged other. About 119 homes were without power, Abbott said.
“As of right now there have been no lives lost, that’s so incredibly important,” Abbott said. “If you lose a life, you can’t rebuild anything.”
Abbott said additional information on the evacuation order will be provided pending the status of the fire.
The Das Goat Fire had burned an estimated 958 acres by Sunday afternoon and was 20% contained, the forest service said. “Crews worked overnight to continue fireline construction, especially in the northern portion, to keep the fire from progressing. Engines were committed to structure protection,” it said on Twitter.
Smoke from that blaze, as well as other fires in east, central and south Texas could be seen on satellite Saturday evening, the National Weather Service said.
The forest service said it was also requested to respond to the Ramsey Fire in Brown County, which rekindled and moved past previous containment lines. The blaze was more than 3,100 acres Sunday afternoon and roughly 65% contained,” the forest service said.
Police in Brownwood warned residents to stay away from areas near the town of Blanket, adding that homes in areas east and northeast of the town were being evacuated.
Some residents in neighboring Comanche County were also evacuating, according to a Facebook post Saturday evening from the county judge.
Meanwhile, the Hayfield South Fire, burning in Kenedy County in the southernmost area of the state, had torched roughly 10,500 acres by Sunday night and was 75% contained, the forest service said.