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Texas Fires Bring Loss to a Small Town That Already Knows It Well

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Texas Fires Bring Loss to a Small Town That Already Knows It Well

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Mickey German has lived just about his entire life in Fritch, Texas, but Fritch has not always made it easy.

He recalls watching from the safety of a bar, The Renegade, in 1992 as a storm brought a cluster of tornadoes through Fritch, leveling his apartment and 200 other homes. Then, in the spring of 2014, a blaze that locals call the Mother’s Day fire incinerated about 225 more.

Now, another disaster has devastated Fritch, a tight-knit town of about 1,900 people, and made Mr. German, 54, homeless again. His apartment was among dozens consumed by flames last week in one of several active wildfires that have burned a combined 1.2 million acres in the Texas Panhandle.

“It was up in smoke,” Mr. German, a maintenance worker at a gas station, said on Tuesday as he stood outside of his temporary residence at the Lone Star Motel. “This one hurt.”

The population here has been in steady decline for decades, and, after this latest catastrophe, residents are wondering which of their neighbors may be the next to pack up and leave. Between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, the town lost 12 percent of its residents. Still, many feel drawn to stay, wanting to live somewhere where everybody knows everybody and where sticking around through adversity is seen as a mark of achievement.

“I know there’s a few I’ve talked to that say, ‘I’m done,’ but I ain’t going nowhere,” Mr. German said while smoking a cigarette by his truck, one of the few possessions he was able to save from the blaze. “I won’t let it be me. No chance in hell. It’s home.”

Mr. German and other longtime residents said that last week’s fire had burned some of the same land that was hit by the tornadoes in ’92.

The latest tragedy to befall Fritch was compounded on Tuesday by the death of the town’s volunteer fire chief, Zeb Smith, who collapsed while responding to a house fire in town shortly after sunrise. Mr. Smith, 40, had charged into the cream-colored, single-story home as it billowed with smoke, the authorities said, and had to be pulled out by other firefighters. He could not be saved.

At an emotional news conference, officials said Mr. Smith and his crews had been working long days and nights battling the wildfires over the last week, only to have to confront an unrelated fire in the heart of their town.

Zeb Smith, Fritch’s volunteer fire chief, died on Tuesday while responding to a house fire.Credit…City of Borger

“To me, he was one of my kids,” Tom Ray, the mayor of Fritch, said while fighting back tears.

Residents lined Fritch’s main road, Broadway Street, to pay their respects as a series of fire trucks, police cars and motorcycles escorted a silver hearse. Flags in town flew at half-staff.

Melony Watkins, 52, an artist, lives with her husband one street over from the house that caught fire and said she watched from her porch as flames burned out its windows and doors. Ms. Watkins has lived in town since fourth grade and describes herself as “a die-hard Fritchian,” but said she was feeling overwhelmed by what felt like one calamity after another.

“I just want to escape,” she said. “It’s like every freaking day; I pretty much wake up, before I even get my coffee, and see what fire’s happening today.”

Ms. Watkins lauded the generosity of many local residents who have offered food, spare bedrooms and farm supplies to those who have been burned out, but said she still expected that some people would wind up leaving. There is very little temporary housing, and many people whose homes were burned may be unable to rebuild because, like many people in rural Texas, they did not have homeowners’ insurance.

The fire that hit Fritch, known as the Windy Deuce fire, was one of several fast-moving blazes that began last week.

The largest, by far, is the Smokehouse Creek fire, which became the state’s biggest fire in history and led to two deaths. A landowner lawsuit claims that the fire was started by a downed utility pole, though the state has not yet come to any conclusions about how the fire ignited. Thousands of cattle are feared dead, and wide swaths of land are charred, dealing a blow to ranchers and farmers who form the economic backbone of the region.

The fires have been unusually powerful, in part because of a combination of strong winds and miles of dried-out grass that can almost instantly ignite, firefighters have said.

“I’ve fought fire from Florida to California to New Mexico to Montana, and by far the fire behavior we see in the Panhandle is the most extreme fire behavior I’ve ever seen,” said Colten Ledbetter, 32, an engine captain with the Southern Plains Fire Group who has been battling blazes over the past week.

When the fire struck Fritch on the afternoon of Feb. 27, it was moving so quickly that firefighters could not save homes. Some people saw friends’ and relatives’ houses turned to rubble, along with their own.

Wanda Buchanan, a teacher, has lived for 49 years in the same home on Chisholm Trail, a road that overlooks large fields on the south edge of town. On Tuesday, she surveyed what was left of it: a pile of ash, fallen bricks and the twisted remnants of its metal roof.

Her son’s home was destroyed as well, and not far away, the home of one of her grandsons.

Ms. Buchanan, 74, was working as a substitute teacher in Amarillo that day and was not able to get back in time to save her most prized possessions. Chief among them were her mother’s cookbook, her diplomas, the license from her marriage to her late husband, and a plethora of old home videos.

“Things like that that you can’t ever get back,” she said. “I’m trying not to think about the past and what I lost.”

About all she could find in the ash on Tuesday afternoon was a charred hammer, a metal shovel and the outline of her stove. On the swing set in the yard, there were no longer any seats, only metal chains dangling in the breeze.

She admits that Fritch is once again facing a tough situation. But she said that, having taught at the school in town for 26 years, she knows multiple generations of some families and understands how resilient they are.

And she knows there are many reasons to stay in Fritch: the weather that changes each season, the way everybody comes out to support the youth sports teams, all the shared memories of a town with a long history, even if it was a hard one.

“It survived the other fires, it survived the tornado, it’s going to be OK,” she said. “We’ll just be stronger, probably.”

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