Texas fire chief killed fighting house blaze after battling historic wildfires in Panhandle

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A Texas fire chief who had been battling the historic wildfires sweeping across the Panhandle over the past week to protect his small town died Tuesday while fighting a house fire, officials said.

Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith, 40, was first to arrive at the house fire, which was not caused by a wildfire, and charged inside to rescue anyone who may have been trapped, the Hutchinson County Office for Emergency Management said. Smith, however, “faced unforeseen challenges,” and did not exit the home.

Other firefighters rushed inside the burning structure and found Smith, officials said. EMS immediately began treatment and rushed the chief to a hospital, where he died.

Smith’s cause of death has not been released and an autopsy has been ordered, said Brandon Strope, a spokesperson for the Hutchinson County Office for Emergency Management said.

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Strope said that Smith and other volunteer firefighters in the area had been responding over the past nine days to the active wildfires tearing across the Panhandle. While the wildfires did not cause the house fire, Strope said he believes the continuous response to those blazes “certainly” played a role in Smith’s death.

charred vehicle sits near the ruins of a home

“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.

Gov. Greg Abbott praised Smith, along with all the firefighters battling the historic blazes, during a press conference about the wildfires.

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“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 of Smith.

Smith was remembered for his “heart of gold” and being the “epitome of a true leader,” Hutchinson County officials said. He is survived by his two sons, ages 9 and 22.

The cause of the house fire was not immediately clear.

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. 

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The wildfires include the Smokehouse Creek fire, which is the largest wildfire in Texas history. The fire, which has burned almost 1,700 square miles and spilled into neighboring Oklahoma, was about 37% contained as of Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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