Texas Fire Chief Dies While Responding To Fire In Panhandle Town Heavily Affected By Wildfires

The volunteer fire chief of Fritch, Texas, a Panhandle city that was severely affected by the state’s deadly historic wildfires, tragically passed away on Tuesday. He had responded to a structure fire that was unrelated to the ongoing wildfires.

Zeb Smith’s death was announced by Hutchinson County officials, who recognized his tireless efforts over the past week.

According to a press release from Hutchinson County officials on Tuesday morning, Chief Smith, a devoted public servant, was the first to arrive at the scene, showcasing his unwavering dedication and service to the Fritch community. Despite facing unforeseen challenges during the response, Chief Smith tragically succumbed to his injuries, even after receiving emergency medical assistance and being swiftly transported to Golden Plains Community Hospital.

Hutchinson County, which encompasses the town of Fritch, is where the Smokehouse Creek Fire originated. In a matter of days, this fire rapidly spread and engulfed an area of approximately 1.1 million acres.

During a news conference held on Tuesday afternoon, officials disclosed that Smith had reacted to a reported structure fire at a residence at around 7 a.m. local time earlier that day.

According to public information officer Brandon Strope, Chief Smith arrived at the scene and immediately entered the shelter to assess if there were any individuals who required rescue. Remarkably, Chief Smith remained inside the residence without exiting.

Strope clarified that the structure fire was not directly linked to the ongoing wildfires and did not start as a result of them. However, he acknowledged that Chief Smith and other volunteer firefighters had been actively battling the fires for the past nine days. Strope stated that it is safe to assume that their involvement in fighting the wildfires played a role in the unfortunate incident that occurred today.

Alan Wells, the fire chief of Stinnett, another city in the county, pointed out during the news conference that Smith had been operating tirelessly in the battle against wildfires for almost 10 days, with very little sleep.

In just over a week, the Texas Panhandle wildfires have ravaged nearly 1.25 million acres of land. This staggering number is almost equivalent to the total land burned by thousands of fires across the entire state from 2017 to 2021.

During the press conference, County Judge Cindy Irwin emphasized that Smith’s unwavering commitment to his duty ultimately resulted in his tragic demise.

“I am filled with great pride for the exceptional work accomplished by our local firefighters,” expressed Irwin. He further added, “Under the guidance of Chief Smith, our fire department has consistently placed the safety of our citizens at the forefront. We remain committed to providing unwavering support to Chief Smith’s family during this time.”

Fritch Mayor Tom Ray revealed that Smith became a member of the city’s fire department in 2017 and swiftly climbed the ranks to become chief in 2020. Smith leaves behind two sons, the youngest of whom is a mere 9 years old.

Ray, with tears streaming down his face, expressed his deep affection for Smith by saying, “He was one of my kids.”

Officials have announced that plans for a memorial service will be shared at a later time.

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