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Texas fire department chief dies while battling a blaze in Panhandle

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz meeting with Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith on Monday, March 4.
Photo courtesy office of Sen. Ted Cruz
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz meeting with Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith on Monday, March 4.

The chief of a fire department in the inferno-ravaged Texas Panhandle died Tuesday morning while battling a structure fire.

“With profound sorrow, on behalf of the City of Fritch, we announce the passing of Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith, who bravely responded to a structure fire earlier today,” the office of emergency management for the City of Borger and Hutchison County posted on its Facebook page.

 Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith
Courtesy photo from the City of Borger/Hutchison County OEM Facebook page
Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith

“Chief Smith, a dedicated public servant, was the first on the scene, demonstrating his unwavering commitment and service to the Fritch community.”

The city of Fritch, about 35 miles northeast of Amarillo, has been one of the hardest hit during the days-long wildfires that have consumed more than 1 million acres of land in the Panhandle. Fritch is in Hutchinson County, where the Smokehouse Creek Fire began and spread last week.

It’s unclear if the structure fire Smith was battling was part of that massive blaze. Fritch fire personnel have also been helping with efforts to contain the nearby Windy Deuce fire. Officials at the emergency management office weren’t immediately available for comment.

“During the response, Chief Smith faced unforeseen challenges and, despite emergency medical assistance and quick transportation to Golden Plains Community Hospital, tragically succumbed to his injuries,” the statement adds.

CBS affiliate KFDA reported Smith suffered a heart attack as he was battling the blaze.

In a statement posted on the City of Borger’s Facebook page Tuesday afternoon, officials said Smith was dispatched to the fire early in the morning.

“Upon arrival and scene size up, heavy smoke was seen coming from the structure. Chief Smith entered the structure in an attempt to rescue any occupants that might be trapped inside,” reads the statement. “Communication was lost and Chief Smith had not exited the structure."

Fewer than 15 minutes after the chief entered the structure, a rapid intervention team retrieved Smith and began treatment. Smith was later transported to a hospital where he died. The cause of death hasn’t been determined, the statement added.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a social media post that he met with Smith Monday in the Panhandle and offered his condolences to the late chief’s family and the community.

“Heidi and I are praying for his family, friends, loved ones, and colleagues. May the tender hand of the Lord comfort everyone who knew and loved Chief Smith during this time,” Cruz posted.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller praised Smith as a selfless first responder who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“Thanks to their unwavering courage, they have managed to prevent even greater loss of life during this unprecedented disaster,” Miller said in a statement. “Today, as we mourn the loss of Chief Smith, let us honor his bravery and the selflessness of all our emergency personnel who continue to risk their lives to keep us safe."

During a press conference in Canadian, Gov. Greg Abbott also praised Smith and other firefighters who have been battling the blaze for a week.

“As everyone has told me, the damages that would have been sustained would have been extraordinarily more complicated had it not been for what the Firefighters were able to achieve,” Abbott said.

The office of emergency management for the City of Borger and Hutchison County said a memorial service will be announced at a later date.

There has also been considerable progress in the containment efforts to prevent the fires from spreading.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire in Hutchinson County that has consumed about 1,059,570 acres, was 37% contained as of Tuesday afternoon, an increase from the 15% containment just a couple of days ago, according to Abbott's office.

The Grape Vine Creek Fire in Gray County was 60% contained and had burned about 35,000 acres.

And the Windy Deuce Fire in Moore County had consumed about 144,200 acres, and was 55% contained.

Reporter Brad Burt with Texas Tech Public Media contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 KERA

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom