Bringing Swift Relief After the Largest Wildfire in Texas History

Central  |  March 30, 2024
Wildfires passed through, leaving only ruins.
The Smokehouse Creek Fire leaves nothing behind but ruins. Photo/Er Guan

Written by Er Guan
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

A fierce wildfire broke out in North Texas on February 26, 2024, and spread quickly. According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, the Smokehouse Creek Fire burned more than a million acres of land in the Texas Panhandle area and parts of Oklahoma, causing at least three deaths, destroying about 500 structures, and killing thousands of cattle. It took three weeks before the wildfire was fully contained on March 17. The Smokehouse Creek Fire was the largest and most destructive wildfire in Texas history and one of the largest wildfires in the United States.

Xcel Energy’s March 7 statement acknowledged that downed utility poles owned by the company were the primary cause of the fire. The wildfire was so intense that it scorched and burned everything in its path to the ground. The blaze impacted the Texas livestock industry tremendously. North Texas is one of the nation’s most extensive cattle ranching areas, with the Texas Panhandle area home to up to 85% of the state’s herd. The wildfire engulfed thousands of cattle, instantly wiping out the life’s work of countless ranchers.

Tzu Chi USA Central Region’s Executive Director Personally Surveys Damages

Among Texas counties, Hutchinson County was most gravely affected by the Smokehouse Creek Fire. The wildfire originated in the County’s City of Stinnett. The town’s approximately 1,600 residents evacuated quickly after the wildfire ignited and spread. When they could return home three days later, on February 29,  as the blaze had burned away from the area, all that was left were scorched remains: Melted street signs, charred cars, and crumbling walls. Everywhere one looked, there were ruins and devastation.

What was once a green pasture was only a piece of black scorched earth.
Hutchinson County is an area hardest hit by wildfires, and Ling Jicheng visited the site to investigate the disaster and discuss relief matters.

Yuanliang Ling, Tzu Chi USA Central Region’s Executive Director, personally surveys damages in Hutchinson County, the hardest hit area, and begins to formulate relief plans. Photo/Er Guan

Wherever disasters strike nationwide, Tzu Chi volunteers are usually not far away and swiftly mobilize aid. Given the Smokehouse Creek Fire’s trail of devastation, the Tzu Chi USA Central Region responded immediately. On March 6, the Region’s Executive Director, Yuanliang Ling, personally went to Fritch, a city in the hardest-hit area, to conduct a field survey of damages. He met with Janell Menahem, Chair of Texas Panhandle VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster), to discuss relief efforts. He determined that Tzu Chi volunteers would hold a disaster aid distribution at Celebration Family Church in Fritch on March 8.

Tzu Chi Distributes Emergency Funds to Relieve Urgent Needs

On March 8, before dawn, Tzu Chi volunteers in Dallas gathered at the Central Region Office at 5:00 AM. On that chilly morning, with its stiff breeze and mist of dew, the team set off for Hutchinson County to distribute disaster aid.

Tzu Chi originally planned to hold the distribution event at the Celebration Family Church in Fritch. However, there would be an unexpected funeral service there that day, as Zeb Smith, Fritch Fire Department Chief, had tragically died while on firefighting duty several days earlier, on March 5. Therefore, Tzu Chi changed the distribution location to the Dome Civic and Convention Center in the City of Borger, 12 miles from Fritch.

Tzu Chi volunteers warmly embrace the victims.
Tzu Chi volunteers warmly hug the survivors, offering moral support. Photo/Er Guan

As soon as Tzu Chi volunteers arrived at the distribution site, they began preparations. After hanging Tzu Chi banners, they organized the aid supplies: Cash cards, eco-blankets, and bamboo banks to inspire paying the love received forward. Not long after, the Smokehouse Creek Fire survivors filled the Dome Civic and Convention Center.

As Tzu Chi volunteers interacted with the disaster survivors, many had a harrowing story to share. Joy Bierden recounted how howling winds blew straight from the north that day, wiping up a massive wall of fire. The crimson blaze soon engulfed the area as forceful winds pushed the inferno forward. When Bierden’s father, who is advanced in age, woke up that morning, thick smoke already billowed all around. 

Joy Bearden wiped away tears as she recounted her father's narrow escape.
Joy Bierden wipes away tears as she recounts her father's narrow escape from death during the wildfire. Photo/Er Guan
The victims burst into tears and were warmly comforted by Tzu Chi volunteers.
The disaster survivors can’t stop crying as they share their stories, and Tzu Chi volunteers comfort them. Photo/Er Guan

At that point, all he could do was immediately jump in the car to escape the flames. Bierden was red-faced and couldn’t stop crying as she reported, “The wildfire destroyed my dad’s home, he lost everything he owned. His horse managed to escape, his dog dug a hole and managed to escape, but everything else was gone.” After the fire had passed, Bierden and her dad returned to his home, only to find nothing but a ruin in front of them: “We tried to do some clearing, but he had nothing left.”

Warren Kretzmeier and his wife lived an ordinary yet happy life until that fateful Tuesday morning. When they woke up to a choking smell, they went out to check and were surprised to find the sky red in the distance and a huge wall of fire moving closer and closer. It all happened so fast, Kretzmeier remembered. “My wife and I escaped with our two dogs. We took our prescription medication, as well,” he said. Besides that, the couple didn’t have time to grab anything else. 

Fire supplies distribution site.
Tzu Chi volunteers attend to each disaster survivor with care. Photo/Er Guan

As other care recipients also described, when Kretzmeier returned home once the fire had passed, he was overwhelmed by what he saw. The house was essentially gone, rendering him and his wife homeless. “We’re now staying in a hotel that the government provided to families affected by the disaster, but we don’t know how long we can stay there,” he said with concern. 

Tzu Chi distributed cash cards ranging from $800 to $1,000, eco-friendly blankets, and other supplies, hoping to solve the disaster survivors’ immediate needs. In addition, Tzu Chi volunteers did their best to cheer them up. Many who came with sad faces and tears in their eyes felt encouraged and comforted by the volunteers’ heartfelt attention. They left with smiles on their faces and regained confidence.

We’re grateful to everyone who helped us. Thank you so very much, Tzu Chi. We couldn’t have gotten back on our feet without your help. Thank you …

People lost their life savings in the fire.
The wildfire costs people their life savings. Photo/Yi Me
Tzu Chi volunteers encouraged the victims with warm words and warm hugs.
Tzu Chi volunteers encourage the survivors with warm words and hugs. Photo/Yi Mei

Of course, Tzu Chi volunteers also handed out bamboo banks, inviting the survivors to turn the power of grief into motivation to help others and support one another through this challenging time. One care recipient solemnly shared, “After this terrible disaster, I have thought and learned a lot. The best reward for surviving is to help more people rebuild their homes.”

Honoring a Fallen Hero Who Died in the Line of Duty

The Smokehouse Creek Fire was one of several wildfires in the Texas Panhandle that raged for days, with countless firefighters battling the flames bravely. Among them was Zeb Smith, the Fritch Fire Department Chief. On March 5, he arrived at a fire scene where he found smoke coming from a building and entered, aiming to rescue people who might be trapped. While inside the burning structure, Zeb Smith suffered a heart attack, lost contact with the outside world, and died in the line of duty.

A family came to receive relief funds.
Whole families come to receive Tzu Chi’s aid; sadness etched on their exhausted faces. Photo/Er Guan
A group photo of volunteers from the Tzu Chi Dallas branch. They will continue to help more disaster-stricken families get through this difficult time.
Tzu Chi USA Central Region volunteers take a group picture at the distribution site, aiming to continue to help more families affected by this Texas wildfire disaster. Photo/Er Guan

In addition to caring for Texans affected by the fires, Tzu Chi USA Central Region volunteers also prepared special condolences for the family of the late Fire Chief Smith, who had so tragically lost his life. Due to the family’s excessive grief, Fritch City Manager Christina Athey accepted the condolences on their behalf on March 8. “We received $2,000 [from Tzu Chi] on behalf of our hero Zeb Smith. We will use the money to help our fire department,” she said to acknowledge the gift, as saddened by the loss of Smith as the rest of the town.

Overcoming Difficulties and Rebuilding Together

The Hutchinson County Government provided the distribution list for Tzu Chi’s disaster relief. Forty-nine affected families received aid on March 8, benefiting 118 individuals. For families with two or fewer members, each household received an emergency fund of $800. Families with three or more members received $1,000. In addition, Tzu Chi distributed 55 blankets and 50 bamboo banks. The Tzu Chi USA Central Region aims to assist more affected residents in recovering and rebuilding their homes.

Although wildfires had destroyed their homes, the survivors were not alone in their sorrow. Tzu Chi brought heartfelt helping hands, offering warmth plus material and moral support. With Tzu Chi USA’s help, it’s hoped that those impacted by this disaster can overcome their difficulties and rebuild their homes as soon as possible.

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