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Fire chief of Texas town in region hit by wildfires dies fighting separate blaze

The fire chief of a small town in the Texas Panhandle region where large wildfires have been burning died responding to an unrelated structure fire Tuesday, officials said.

Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith was responding to a structure fire in the city at around after 7 a.m. when he went inside to check for people who needed rescue and never came out, a spokesman for the Hutchinson County Office of Emergency Management said.

Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith.City of Borger’s Office of Emergency Management

Smith was first on the scene of the fire in the town of around 1,800, officials said. He was found by a rapid response team inside the home at around 7:30 a.m., emergency management office spokesman Brandon Strope said at a news conference.

Smith’s cause of death has not been determined.

“This structure fire was not directly related to the ongoing wildfires,” Strope said.

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

Hutchinson County Judge Cindy Irwin, the top executive for the county’s government, said Smith was a dedicated public official committed to protecting the safety of the community.

“It was his dedication to this duty that ultimately led to his death,” she said. “Just as we’ve come together as a community to support one another during these wildfires, we’ll continue to support the family of Chief Smith.”

Hutchinson County, where Fritch is located, was where the so-called Smokehouse Creek Fire — now the largest wildfire in state history — began last week.

The Roughneck Fire, which has burned around 355 acres, is also burning northeast of Fritch. That fire was 90% contained as of Tuesday, according to state agency Texas A&M Forest Service.

The Windy Deuce Fire, which is around 144,000 acres and is 55% contained, is west of the city.

Two people have died in the panhandle wildfires, officials have said.

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