Charred homes, blackened earth after Texas town revisited by destructive wildfire 10 years later

FRITCH, Texas. — The small town of Fritch is once again sifting through the rubble of a Texas wildfire, a decade after another devastating blaze destroyed 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 drove the flames into residential areas and through cattle ranches.

Fritch Mayor Tom Ray said Wednesday that the northern edge of the city was hit by a devastating wildfire in 2014, while this week’s fire burned largely in the south of the city, leaving residents who live in the heart of the community were spared.

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

The mayor estimated that about 50 homes were destroyed in the Fritch area, with dozens more reportedly destroyed by fire in small towns across the Panhandle.

The cluster of fires included one that grew to be one of the largest in the state’s history. An 83-year-old grandmother from the small town of Stinnett was the only confirmed fatality. However, authorities have yet to conduct a thorough search for the victims and have warned that 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 fires to grow exponentially, prompting evacuations across a 100-mile stretch of small towns and cattle ranches from Fritch, New York. East. to 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 chief when a wildfire broke out about a block from his home on Mother’s Day in 2014 and then swept 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 and the devastation 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 could get a break. As with the current fire, a cold front eventually passed through the area, giving firefighters some control over the fire.

On Wednesday evening, more than a dozen exhausted-looking volunteer firefighters, many covered in ash and soot, gathered at the Fritch Volunteer Fire Department in the city’s downtown. Residents had dropped off packed lunches, snacks and bottled water.

“Today your Fritch Volunteer Fire Department mourns our community and the people around it,” fire officials wrote in a post on Facebook. “We are tired, we are devastated, but we will not waver. We will not give up.”

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

“The wind was just cruel to us,” she said. “At one point the wind was so high and the flames were so high that it just blew across the highway.”

Lee Quesada, of Fritch, evacuated his home Tuesday and said the fire was as close as two houses away.

“I haven’t moved that fast since I was 20,” he said.

His attention then turned to his 83-year-old grandmother Joyce Blankenship, who lived about 20 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, officials said officers called his uncle to say they had found her remains in her burned home.

“It brings tears to my eyes because I know I’ll never see her again,” Quesada said.

It was not clear Wednesday whether more lives had been lost and the extent of damage from the fires, largely because the fires continued to burn and go uncontrolled, making a full assessment 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 later come back this week.

The Moore County Sheriff’s Office, which includes part of Fritch, posted on Facebook Tuesday evening that officers had assisted with evacuations.

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


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