Charred Homes, Blackened Earth After Texas Town Revisited By Destructive Wildfire 10 Years Later

A charred vehicle sits near the ruins of a home after the property was burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Fritch, Texas. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil)
A charred vehicle sits near the ruins of a home after the property was burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Fritch, Texas. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil)
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FRITCH, Texas. (AP) — The small town of Fritch is again picking through the rubble of a Texas wildfire, a decade after another destructive blaze burned hundreds of homes and left deep scars in the Panhandle community.

Residents in and around Fritch and other rural towns fled for safety Tuesday afternoon as high winds whipped the flames into residential areas and through cattle ranches.

Fritch Mayor Tom Ray said on Wednesday the town’s northern edge was hit by a devastating wildfire in 2014, while this week’s blaze burned mostly to the south of the town, sparing the residents who live in the heart of the community.

“I said, ‘Oh Lord, please don’t come down the middle,’” Ray said.

The mayor estimated up to 50 homes were destroyed near Fritch, with dozens more reportedly consumed by fire in small towns throughout the Panhandle.

The cluster of blazes included a fire that grew into one of the largest in state history. An 83-year-old grandmother from the tiny town of Stinnett was the lone confirmed fatality. However, authorities have yet to make a thorough search for victims and have warned the damage to some communities is extensive.

The cause of this week's fires is still unknown but dry, warmer than average conditions combined with high winds caused blazes that sparked to grow exponentially, prompting evacuations across a more than 100-mile (160-kilometer) stretch of small towns and cattle ranches from Fritch east into Oklahoma.

Photos showed homes throughout the area reduced to unrecognizable piles of ash and bricks with charred vehicles and blackened earth.

Cody Benge was a fire captain when a wildfire started about a block from his house on Mother’s Day in 2014 and then tore through Fritch, decimating homes.

Benge, who now lives in Oklahoma, immediately began checking on relatives and friends in Fritch when he heard about this week’s fire.

“I immediately started praying and honestly, it brought back a lot of memories for me and the devastation that I saw,” he said. “I can only imagine what everyone is seeing now.”

Benge battled the 2014 fire for at least 48 hours before he was able to get a break. As in the current fire, a cold front eventually moved over the area and allowed firefighters to gain some control of the blaze.

On Wednesday evening, more than a dozen exhausted-looking volunteer firefighters, many caked with ash and soot, gathered at the Fritch Volunteer Fire Department in the center of town. Residents had dropped off bagged lunches, snacks and bottles of water.

“Today your Fritch Volunteer Fire Department mourns for our community and those around it,” fire officials wrote in a post on Facebook. “We are tired, we are devastated but we will not falter. We will not quit.”

Meghan Mahurin with the Texas A&M Forest Service said they typically rely on heavy equipment to create containment lines around a wildfire, but the fire near Fritch jumped the lines in high winds.

“The wind has just been brutal on us," she said. "At one point the wind was so high and the flames were so tall that it was just blowing across the highway.”

Lee Quesada, of Fritch, evacuated his residence Tuesday saying the fire got as close as two houses away.

“I haven't moved so fast since I was like 20,” he said.

His attention then turned to his 83-year-old grandmother Joyce Blankenship, who lived about 21 miles (33 kilometers) away in the town of Stinnett. He posted on a Fritch Facebook community page wondering if anyone knew anything or could check on her.

On Wednesday, he said deputies called his uncle to say they found her remains in her burned home.

“Brings tears to my eyes knowing I'll never see her again,” Quesada said.

Whether more lives were lost as well as the extent of the damage from the fires wasn't yet clear on Wednesday, largely because the fires continued to burn and remained uncontained, making complete assessments impossible.

“Damage assessment ... is our next priority, after life safety and stopping the growth of these fires," Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said Wednesday, adding that residents should remain alert as conditions favoring fire growth could return later this week.

The Moore County Sheriff's Office, which encompasses some of Fritch, posted on Facebook Tuesday night that deputies had helped with evacuations.

“We have seen tragedy today and we have seen miracles,” the post said. “Today was a historic event we hope never happens again. The panhandle needs prayers.”

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Baumann reported from Bellingham, Washington. AP reporter Jeff Martin contributed from Atlanta.