Texas city Fire chief dies while fighting wildfires in Panhandle

A Texas fire chief from a small town severely affected by recent historic fires in the Panhandle passed away on Tuesday while battling a house fire, according to authorities.

The house fire that Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith, 40, responded to was not due to a wildfire, but Smith had been fighting wildfires for more than a week, according to Brandon Strope, spokesperson for the Hutchinson County Office for Emergency Management. Strope mentioned that Smith was the first to arrive and went into the home to check for occupants but did not come back out.

Additional firefighters located him, and emergency medical services started providing medical care, but he passed away at the hospital. Stope mentioned that the cause of Smith’s death has not been determined yet, and an autopsy has been requested.

“He and his team worked tirelessly, often sacrificing sleep, to protect their community and ensure our safety,” Strope said.

Firefighters are currently working to put out wildfires in rural areas near Amarillo. Officials report that up to 500 structures have been destroyed. The Smokehouse Creek fire is the largest wildfire in Texas history among those wildfires. The fire, which has scorched nearly 1,700 square miles (4,402 square kilometers) and spread into neighboring Oklahoma, was approximately 37% contained as of Tuesday.

Smith’s death was announced shortly before Republican Gov. Greg Abbott met with firefighters in Canadian, another town that has faced significant destruction. Abbott began the news conference by expressing his sympathy for Smith’s passing.

“He was ready to risk his life to protect other people’s belongings, which embodies the true spirit of Texas heroism,” Abbott stated. Abbott discussed the community’s efforts to assist during the wildfires and highlighted the ongoing need for hay to feed cattle. He mentioned that the need will persist for several months. Abbott emphasized the importance of residents staying vigilant while the wildfires are still burning.

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“Despite the progress, it would be a mistake for anyone to assume the threat has passed and lower their defenses,” he stated. The arrival of a cold front in the area on Monday led to lower temperatures and increased humidity, aiding crews in their efforts to control the fires.

“We’re making progress here, but that doesn’t mean the fire doesn’t have the potential to move,” stated Terry Krasko, a spokesperson with the Southern Area Incident Management Blue team, which consists of federal, state, and local agencies. He mentioned a slight chance of rain later in the week, but there are worries about lightning causing more fires. Additionally, dry weather is forecasted for the upcoming weekend, according to him.

The Mayor of Fritch, Tom Ray, mentioned that a wildfire in 2014 affected the city’s northern edge, while a recent blaze mostly burned to the south of the town, sparing the residents in the central area of the community.

Ray mentioned that Smith began working at the Fritch fire department in 2017 and was promoted to chief in 2020. Prior to that, he was employed at a Chevron Phillips fire department. Ray mentioned that Smith’s two sons are 9 and 22 years old. The mayor also added, with his voice breaking, “To me, he was like one of my own children.”

Even though authorities have not yet determined the official cause of the Smokehouse Creek fire, a lawsuit filed on Friday claims that a downed powerline near the town of Stinnett on Feb. 26 ignited the fire.

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