Texas fire chief dies fighting blaze as wildfires continue to sweep state

A fire chief whose small Texas city has been ravaged by the wildfires sweeping the Panhandle in recent days has died while responding to an unrelated structure fire.

Hutchinson County officials announced the death of Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith in a press release on Tuesday.

Smith, 40, was the first unit on the scene at the structure fire. During the response, the chief “faced unforeseen challenges” and was quickly seen by medical responders and transported to the hospital, he succumbed to his injuries.

Heavy smoke was seen coming from the structure and Smith entered to try and rescue any people that could be trapped inside.

However, once he was in the structure, communication was lost, and he never came out.

A rapid intervention time embarked into the structure and found Smith. After being transported to the hospital, he was later pronounced deceased.

A cause of death has not been released at this time, officials said, however, Hutchinson County Judge Cindy Irwin did relay that it was “his dedication to this duty that ultimately led to his death”.

While the structure was not a result of the wildfire, Smith has been working with the wildfires for days on end

(City of Borger/Hutchinson County OEM)

The structure fire that Smith responded to was not connected to any of the active wildfires in the area; however, public information officer Brandon Strope did remind the community that Smith and every firefighter had been tirelessly working with the wildfires for nine days straight.

“I would be remiss if I did not say that Chief Smith, along with every other volunteer firefighter in this county and in his department, has responded for the last nine days actively fighting these fires,” Mr Strope said.

“So I think we all can say with pretty good certainty that it did have a role in today’s unfortunate incident.”

“His exemplary leadership was evident in his tireless efforts over the past week, where he worked diligently to protect and safeguard his community and fellow citizens,” the county officials wrote in their statement, adding that they send their condolences to the chief’s family.

The colossal wildfires have destroyed over 500 structures across the Panhandle as firefighters across the area have continuously tried to contain and extinguish the devastating flames.

The wildfires have included the Smokehouse Creek fire, which quickly became the largest in the state’s history and has burned through more than a million acres in the Panhandle, according to AccuWeather.

The wildfires in Texas have devastated homes in the Panhandle

(Getty Images)

Chances of precipitation could move across the Panhandle on Thursday and Friday, with possible rain and snow depending on location.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott spoke at another press conference and praised people who have been pulling together while the fires are destroying the area, but added that there are still many needs, which could go on for months, such as the “extraordinary” demand for hay for the cattle, News Channel 10 reported.

He added that people should not “let the guard down” while the fires continue to burn.

The governor praised Smith for being a clear example of “Texas heroism”, saying he was “willing to put his own life on the line to save the property of others”.

Fritch Mayor Thomas Ray said Smith joined the fire department in 2017 and became chief in 2020. He is survived by his family, including two sons.

“He was one of my kids,” Mr Ray said tearfully during the conference while remembering Smith.

Officials said that any plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later date.

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