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As wildfires rage through Panhandle, Fritch residents seek respite at church

By Carlos Nogueras Ramos, The Texas Tribune

As wildfires rage through Panhandle, Fritch residents seek respite at church” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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FRITCH — Blankets. Family photos. Toiletries. An old prom dress. These were some of the personal belongings Deana McBroom organized into piles when she heard fires had begun to encroach on her neighborhood.

At a moment’s notice, she could just take them. There was still time, she said.

Then, on Tuesday, her phone rang. The fire had breached her neighbor’s backyard. The family needed to leave now, her neighbor said. Emergency sirens began to wail — the sign to evacuate. McBroom grabbed her 2-year-old granddaughter, ran to the SUV parked out front and strapped her into the car seat while her husband, Scott, got the dogs.

“Please don’t die,” she told her husband of 8 years. “I can live without the dogs, but not you.”

The family fled from the land they called home, where Scott had grown up. They would never see that home again. The couple had managed to salvage just one box of paperwork.

Their land was just two acres of the staggering over 1 million lost to an inferno that burned through ranchland, towns and pastures in what state authorities have determined is the largest wildfire in Texas history. As firefighters struggled to fend off five separate fires that raged relentlessly, residents of the Panhandle scrambled to find shelter and relief.

A burned truck sits on lot where the fire went through while areas behind appear to be untouched Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Fritch, Texas.
A burned truck sits on lot while other areas behind appear to be untouched in Fritch, Texas. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

The McBroom family fled to their daughter’s house in the neighboring city of Borger, where they have been waiting out the fires for the past few days. Their new daily routine is to stop by a local church that repurposed its halls to shelter the displaced. They grab food and water but they mostly go for the company.

Fritch, a city of 2,300 residents, has been mostly closed off as officials work to survey the damage to buildings.

“It all just happens so fast,” Scott McBroom said. “They don’t tell you how fast it is.”

Experts said the high wind gusts on Tuesday afternoon contributed to the Windy Deuce fire spreading further, spanning 142,000 acres. It is 30% contained as of Friday, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Deana McBroom holds one of their baby goats that survived the fire Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Fritch, Texas. Most of their livestock survived the fire.
Deana McBroom holds one of their baby goats that survived the fire. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune
Cups and other items Scott and Deana McBroom have been able to salvage from their burned house Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Fritch, Texas.
Cups and other items Scott and Deana McBroom have been able to salvage from their burned house Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Fritch, Texas. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune
Broken china from Scott McBroom’s mother sits in the rubble of Scott and Deana McBroom’s house Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Fritch, Texas.
Broken china from Scott McBroom’s mother sits in the rubble of Scott and Deana McBroom’s house Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Fritch, Texas. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune
First: Scott and Deana McBroom salvage cups and other items from their burned house. Last: Broken china from Scott McBroom’s mother sits in the rubble of the McBroom’s house in Fritch, Texas. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

On Friday, the McBrooms faced the debris on their property for a second time. They picked out things that survived the fire: shards of china that Scott had inherited from his mom, a water bowl for one of the dogs, a brittle skeleton mug and shot glasses. Odds and ends. The couple had spent six years working on the home.

“You just don’t think it’s going to happen,” Deana said. “I lost all my stuff.”

State and local officials continue to try and make sense of the devastation that has so far claimed two lives, according to Texas Department of Public Safety Officials and CNN.

In Fritch, which is located between Moore and Hutchinson counties, it’s unclear just how many homes were lost to the wildfire, according to Terry Krasko, a spokesperson for Southern Area Blue Complex Incident Management Team, a federally established agency partnering with county and state officials to quantify the aftermath.

“We know we lost towns,” Krasko said. “We just don’t have the number.”

Fritch Mayor Tom Ray told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the fires destroyed approximately 50 homes on the city’s south side. He recalled a wildfire just 10 years ago had devastated homes on the city’s north side.

Late on a sunny Friday afternoon, along the roads of Fritch, families began to conduct surveys themselves. Dan and Sarah Cogswell picked through a half-acre pile of rubble, ash gray and charred black. It was all that was left of the home that Dan’s father left him. Dan had planned to clean and remodel, hoping to have an additional home for the family.

When the couple heard the sirens on Tuesday, they packed their belongings and ran for the truck. Once on the highway, they hit traffic. Plumes of smoke blurred their visibility.

The burned remnants of Dan Cogswell’s shed Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Fritch, Texas.
The burned remnants of Dan Cogswell’s shed on Friday in Fritch, Texas. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

A few blocks away, a firefighter knocked on their daughter’s door, ordering her to evacuate. Rachel, the couple’s daughter, raced to the school to pick up her three teenagers.

They all crashed at a motel that night. A day later, Rachel gets a phone call. Fires caught up to her home, burning it to ash. She had just paid off the house.

At the Fairlanes Baptist Church in Borger, the family sought legal assistance. What do you do about a home you just paid off when it burned to the ground? What about two?

“We carry on,” Sarah Cogswell said. “Not much else you can do.”


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/01/texas-panhandle-wildfires-fritch-homeowners/.

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