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Sen. Cruz Delivers Floor Speech on Texas Panhandle Fires, Honoring Life of Fritch Volunteer Fire Chief Zeb Smith

March 8, 2024

ICYMI: Sen. Cruz Delivers Floor Speech on Texas Panhandle Fires, Honoring Life of Fritch Volunteer Fire Chief Zeb Smith


WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) delivered remarks on the Senate floor yesterday on the fires in the Texas Panhandle and in honor of the sacrifice and service of Fritch Volunteer Fire Chief Zeb Smith. Chief Smith passed away fighting a fire on Tuesday morning. Earlier this week, Sen. Cruz was on the ground in Fritch and Borger, Texas to meet with local officials, impacted families, and relief services. There he met with Chief Smith.

Watch the speech here.


Mr. President, on Monday of this week, I visited the towns of Fritch and Borger in the Panhandle of Texas. Fritch is a town of roughly 1,800 residents who are no strangers to hard times. In 1992, a tornado a mile wide ripped through the town, and destroyed over 1,300 homes. Ten years ago, in 2014, a wildfire and Fritch destroyed over 100 homes.


In the past week and a half, Fritch and the rest of the Texas Panhandle, and the Oklahoma Panhandle as well, have been dealing with devastating wildfires. When I was there on Monday, 242 homes had been lost. I met with local officials, county judges, mayors, police chiefs, fire chiefs, volunteers at churches, and charities. I met with families who had been devastated and lost everything.


I saw homes that had been burned beyond recognition. One home I saw, outside was parked a truck that had been utterly burned and charred. The heat was so intense that the windshield, the glass, had melted into just pools of glass on the hood. I also saw in front of a house a motorcycle, I think it was a Harley, that had been utterly incinerated. The tires were burned and gone. I saw a boat, I think it was a bass boat, a fishing boat, again utterly incinerated—nothing but fiberglass, just melted on the ground.


One of the officials I met with was Volunteer Fire Chief Zeb Smith. I met with Chief Smith on Monday. Less than 24 hours after he and I met, Chief Smith passed away, fighting that wildfire, running into a home that was on fire trying to stop the blaze. He had been fighting fires for nine days straight when he entered that home first thing Tuesday morning. On Monday, I asked Chief Smith, I said, ‘Have any firefighters been injured yet?’ He said, ‘Thankfully, no.’ Neither he nor I knew when we were having that conversation that 24 hours later he would be the first, and he would give his life to save his community.


These wildfires have been raging for a week and a half. And they’ve devastated communities like Fritch, all the way from Lake Meredith to Canadian. One of the fires, The Smokehouse Creek Fire, is the largest wildfire in Texas history and the second largest in our nation’s history. The scar from these fires can be seen from space, and they currently cover more acreage than the entire state of Rhode Island.


These fires have had a devastating impact on farmers and ranchers in Texas. More than 500 structures have been lost, 10,000 miles worth of barbed wire has been destroyed. And it’s still unclear exactly how many cattle have perished, but we know it is thousands upon thousands of cattle who’ve been taken by the fire.


I texted a good friend of mine who lives in Canadian. I told her I was thinking of her. I just asked, how she was doing? How she was doing with the fires? I didn’t expect her response. She responded, ‘Well not too well. My home burned down. So, did my barn and I lost half my cattle.’ But then she responded, ‘You know what I’m actually feeling pretty lucky because the ranchers on both sides of me lost all their cattle.’ And I gotta say I prayed for my friend, I prayed for all the men and women in the Panhandle. But that response also embodies the frontier spirit. These are tough Texans.


The destruction we’re seeing is enormous. However, throughout all of this, to date, there have been only three deaths attributed to the wildfires. That is extraordinary given the magnitude of this disaster, it could easily have been scores and scores of death. That’s a testament to the firefighters and the first responders in the Panhandle who have been tirelessly working to get people out of harm’s way, to contain the fires, and at times the fires have been traveling more than 200 yards per second. That’s how fast these fires have been moving.


Mr. President, right now, as this disaster is unfolding in Texas, the first priority is to contain these fires to put them out. Texans are working to stop their spread. The weather has been a big factor. A few days ago, fortunately, there was some cold. There was some wet weather with snow and ice that slowed the fire some. But then the weather got drier and windier which is ideal conditions for spreading fire. So right now, there are firefighters heroically battling massive fires risking their lives. When I was there, I was told that over 60 fire departments from across Texas, and across the country, have sent firefighters to battle the blaze. Monday night, I was at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and I saw the Houston Fire Chief. He told me Houston had sent firefighters all the way up to the Panhandle to help battle the blaze.


To anyone in the Panhandle who sees this. I want to ask you please listen very, very carefully to your local officials. Listen to emergency responders. If they give you an evacuation order, treat it seriously. Keep your family safe. At the end of the day, it’s tragic when someone loses a home, but a home can be replaced. Your family members cannot. This fire is dangerous, and our first priority needs to be preserving life and getting people out of harm’s way.


The second step is to shift to relief and rebuilding. And rebuilding is a process that’s going to take years. In the short term, there are charities that have stepped up and are engaged, including the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, and local churches. And you know, I want to say something—I’ve been in the Senate 12 years. Texas is a big state and as a big state we have our share of natural disasters. From hurricanes ravaging the Gulf Coast, to tornadoes doing enormous devastation, to this wildfire raging in the Panhandle right now. And as Texas’ Senator, it’s my responsibility to stand with those communities in the time of crisis and in the aftermath of rebuilding. And every time we’ve had a natural disaster in Texas, it’s heartbreaking when you see the loss of life and the suffering, but consistently it is also inspiring.


It is inspiring because the reaction of Texans in a time of crisis, they come together. Texans helping Texans. Holding onto each other, supporting each other. When Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, and home after home was flooded, I remember Texans would go and rescue their neighbors. They were jumping on bass boats because the streets were flooded and they’d go from house to house pulling people out of harm’s way. Rednecks in bass boats, is what I call them and it was the spirit of Texas. And the beauty in that time is there are no partisan divisions. There are no Republicans and Democrats. People don’t care about race, or ethnicity, or religion. It’s just Texans helping Texas. And that’s what I saw in Fritch and Borger, that same spirit of Texans helping Texans.


And I’ll tell you in a time of crisis, the church steps up and the church should. The church should show love. When I was in the Panhandle, I stopped at multiple churches and relief centers. I thank the volunteers who were there. They were giving out food, they were giving out water, they were giving out diapers, and they were giving out supplies for people who had lost everything. And I thank them. I visited with one woman whose home had burned down, and her daughter’s home had burned down. And I’ll tell you, she was smiling and in good spirits. She said, ‘You know what, my family is alive and safe.’


I mentioned in Fritch 242 homes had burned down. The county judge told me though, there were only a half dozen people in the local shelter that they’d stood up. Because everyone else whose home had burned down, they were presumably staying with friends, or family, or loved ones. It was other Texans who said, ‘Hey, you lost your home, come stay with me.’ That’s inspiring. It’s powerful. That’s what Texans do.


There are also things that we can and should do at the federal level to help the Panhandle. With every local official, I asked: Do you have the federal resources you need? Do you have the assistance right now in crisis? And then going forward, my office has been working hand in hand with state officials and local officials beginning to coordinate federal resources to fight the fires.


And indeed, I’ve already filed an amendment to the minibus the Senate is considering right now, to increase the funding for wildfire relief and to help the people impacted by this. And I’ll continue working on measures to provide disaster relief for Texans in harm’s way. From the people who’ve lost their homes, to our ranchers who suffered a devastating loss of livestock, we need to stand with the Panhandle and help recover from this historic disaster.


Mr. President, there’s an old Panhandle saying up there, that people have ‘Panhandle spirit.’ A spirit of humility, a spirit of companionship, a spirit that when a neighbor needs help by God you help them. The whole country has seen that spirit in the past few days. Thousands of bales of hay and cattle feed had been trucked up daily from ranchers wanting to help out fellow ranchers. Hundreds of pallets of water, food, and clothes have been donated to help people in need. That same spirit that built Texas, it’s the same spirit that makes the Lone Star State so unique. That’s the spirit that keeps our firefighters fighting the blazes, that keeps our ranchers rebuilding the fences, and people picking up the pieces and re-rooting in the land they love.


Together, with that same spirit, and that same determination that people in the Panhandle Plains have had for generations, we will rebuild. We will come back even stronger than ever. God bless our firefighters. God bless our first responders. And God bless all the Texans who have lost their homes in the past few days. And those Texans who have lost loved ones, we are praying for you, and we will help you rebuild.


Mr. President, I’d like to close by again talking about Chief Smith. The loss of Zeb Smith has left a huge hole in the community. On social media, the Fritch Volunteer Fire Department wrote quote, ‘Just know that right now we are not okay. We love our chief, our brother, our friend. Please be patient with us.’ The Hutchinson county office Emergency Management Team stated about Chief Smith quote, ‘His exemplary leadership was evident in his tireless efforts over the past week where he worked diligently to protect and safeguard his community and fellow citizens.’


Chief Smith was a hero. His name will not be forgotten. In his honor, I had a flag flown over the United States Capitol to recognize his heroic service. Chief Smith gave his life on Tuesday of this week so that his fellow Texans can live. To the family and friends and loved ones of Chief Smith we are mourning with you, and we are celebrating a life well lived. May God bless the people of Texas. We will defeat these wildfires.


I yield the floor.”

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