Recovery Continues a Year After Texas Panhandle Wildfire

By JIM McBRIDE, Amarillo Globe-News | May 15, 2015

Bit by bit, new residences and mobile homes have sprung up around Lake Meredith a year after a massive wind-whipped wildfire destroyed 225 homes and dozens of smaller buildings around the Texas lake.

The Amarillo Globe-News reports that but here and there, bare concrete slabs, blackened trees and an occasional For Sale sign serve as grim reminders of the Mother’s Day blaze that changed some lives forever.

Cody Benge, public utilities director for the nearby city of Fritch, said some fire victims have moved into town, but many others are planting seeds of renewal amid the ashes.

“There’s been at least 25 people that’s relocated to a different area that was an undeveloped lot and they are rebuilding there,” Benge said. “I would say about 50 percent of the people that were out there are still out there and are rebuilding. They’re staying at their same location and are rebuilding in the same place.”

The Hutchinson County United Way Fritch Fire Relief Fund received $660,000 in donations for fire victims, according to its final report.

The agency also contributed $50,000.

Of $660,000 in donations the agency received, nearly $460,000 came from within the county, which has fewer than 20,000 people, Executive Director Julie Winters said. In its yearly fall campaign, the local United Way then raised $685,000, its largest campaign.

With the help of area mobile home dealerships, United Way officials were able to determine roughly what it would cost to help affected families buy modest two-bedroom, one-bath homes. Armed with that information, the agency was able to help 20 families with new home purchases.

Some of those families were able to take that funding, add their own money or finances and purchased larger homes. Seven families received enough funding to cover half the cost of a new home, and 14 other families received down payment money toward the purchase of a new residence.

The agency also gave seven families retailer gift cards to help rebuild or prepare the foundations for a new home, Winters said.

Another 15 families, she said, received assistance with odds and ends.

“We are still working with a few families to see if we are able to help them and if so how we will be able to help them,” she said..

A 12-person committee, she said, reviewed all the applications, met with the victims, assessed their needs and determined how the money would be allocated. The committee, Winters said, played a key role in helping the many families whose lives were upended during and after the fire.

To date, United Way has allocated over $703,000 to its fire relief efforts.

Fritch Fire Department Chief Ronnie Morrison said many of those rebuilding are installing metal fencing instead of wooden fences and are taking other precautionary measures to protect their dwellings.

“The ones building back are doing what we told them. They are putting the space around their houses, not putting trees up against their houses,” said Morrison. “We can’t do anything about the lake .. it’s still growing back,” Morrison said.

This summer, local officials will again host public meetings on wildfire dangers and hand out information to residents offering tips on how to protect their homes in the event of another wildfire, Morrison said.

“That’s about all we can do. If they decide not to cooperate with that, there’s very little we can do as far as stopping that wildfire coming up those hills,” he said.

The total property loss linked to the fire, based on 231 properties, stands at $2.44 million. Initially, the district estimated the property loss at $3.8 million, but further review of the affected properties indicated many of them contained older trailer homes that were valued at less than originally anticipated, according to updated information from the Hutchinson County Appraisal District.

Mark Hannah of the Insurance Council of Texas said the council estimates that the blaze caused another $1 million in damage to vehicles.

Bob Maguire, superintendent at Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, said firefighters burned off about 4,000 acres of brush in January. Maguire said no further burns are planned for this year, in part, because of a lack of federal funding.

Peggy Taylor, 79, is among the many who have stayed. But just across the street, a For Sale sign has popped up where her neighbors once lived and about all that remains there are concrete slabs, charred mesquites and a few lonely bird houses.

Taylor considers herself the blessed and credits her lush green lawn with helping thwart the Mother’s Day blaze’s approach.

“I grabbed my dog, got in my car and away I went,” she said of when the fire broke out and authorities told her and others to evacuate.

Flames licked at the hillside beneath her home and destroyed neighbor Jim Campsey’s home just over the hill.

Heat from the conflagration blistered the back of her garage and her house suffered heavy smoke damage, but it wasn’t structurally damaged. She stayed with a friend whose house was destroyed and then her son until crews spent about a week cleaning up the smoke damage in her home.

“The rest of these houses had gone up,” she said of her neighborhood, which is slowly returning. “I was blessed to have this house still standing.

Fire officials said 225 homes and 143 outbuildings were destroyed outright, but firefighters from the region and even New Mexico and Oklahoma helped save some 241 homes and 133 outbuildings.

The cause of the fire still has not been publicly released.

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