By JAMIE STENGLE Associated Press

A Texas fire chief whose small town was among the hardest hit last week by historic blazes sweeping across the Panhandle died Tuesday while fighting a house fire, authorities said.

The house fire that Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith, 40, responded to wasn't caused by a wildfire, but Smith had been battling the wildfires for over a week, said Brandon Strope, spokesperson for the Hutchinson County Office for Emergency Management. Strope said that after Smith, who was first to arrive, entered the home to check on any occupants, he did not exit. Other firefighters found him and EMS began medical treatment, but he died at the hospital.

Stope said Smith's cause of death hasn't been clarified and an autopsy has been ordered.

"Him and his team were out every day, most nights, got very little sleep and just selflessly went out and did everything they could to save their community and keep us intact," Strope said.

Firefighters are still trying to extinguish wildfires that have been burning across rural areas around Amarillo, which officials say have destroyed as many as 500 structures. Those wildfires include the Smokehouse Creek fire, which is the largest wildfire in Texas history. The fire, which has burned almost 1,700 square miles (4,402 square kilometers) and spilled into neighboring Oklahoma, was about 37% contained as of Tuesday.

The announcement of Smith's death came hours before Republican Gov. Greg Abbott met with firefighters in Canadian, another town that's experienced heavy destruction. Abbott started the news conference by offering his condolences on Smith's death.

"He was willing to put his own life on the line to save the property of others, and that is what Texas heroism is all about," Abbott said.

During the news conference, Abbott spoke about the way people have been pulling together to help amid the destruction from the wildfires, and also noted that there are still many needs, including an "extraordinary" need for hay for cattle to eat. That, he said, is a need that will last for months.

Abbott said that with the wildfires still burning, it's important that residents remain vigilant.

"Even though progress has been made, it's wrong if anybody thinks the fire is over and they can let down their guard," he said.

A cold front that moved into the area Monday brought cool temperatures and higher humidity, which helps crews make strides in containing the fires.

"We're making progress here, that doesn't mean that the fire doesn't have potential to move," said Terry Krasko, a spokesperson with the Southern Area Incident Management Blue team, a team of federal, state and local agencies.

And, he said, while there's a small potential for rain toward the end of the week, there are concerns about the possibility then of lightning igniting other fires. And more dry weather is expected over the weekend, he said.

Fritch Mayor Tom Ray has said that the city's northern edge was hit by a devastating wildfire in 2014, while last week's blaze burned mostly to the south of the town, sparing the residents who live in the heart of the community.

Ray said Tuesday that Smith had started work at the Fritch fire department in 2017, and became chief in 2020. Before that, he worked at a Chevron Phillips fire department.
Ray said Smith is survived by two sons, ages 9 and 22. The mayor also added, his voice breaking, "To me, he was one of my kids."

Although officials have not released an official cause of the Smokehouse Creek fire, a lawsuit filed Friday alleges a downed powerline near the town of Stinnett on Feb. 26 sparked the blaze.

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