Helping Texans After the Largest Wildfire in State History

Written by Er Guan and Ida Eva Zielinska

The Smokehouse Creek Fire that struck in the Texas Panhandle at the end of February 2024 leaves destruction and despair in hardest-hit Hutchinson County. Photo/Er Guan

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On February 26, 2024, several fast-spreading fires ignited in the Texas Panhandle, a square-shaped region in the northernmost part of the state. The next day, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for certain counties “to ensure critical fire response resources are swiftly deployed,” he said in a press release. 

One of the wildfires, the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Hutchinson County, would grow to burn over one million acres before it was fully contained on March 16. It became the largest wildfire on record in Texas state history and is among the largest fires in the United States to date.

With roughly 20,000 residents, per U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2023, Hutchinson County contains merely a handful of small towns. In such low-population communities, the disaster’s destruction risked having a wide-reaching impact: it certainly did in Fritch, with around 2,000 residents.

My house was most likely the first house that burned down. The fire jumped the highway and came across the pasture. We felt the heat long before we saw the flames. Then the flames jumped up and were at least 15 feet high. My house was a total loss, destroyed. Almost every house on the street was a total loss.

Once the residents returned after the blaze had burned away from the area, they found only scorched remains in many parts of their hometown: melted street signs, charred cars, crumbling walls, and ruins where dwellings once stood. Yuanliang Ling, Tzu Chi USA Central Region Executive Director, documented those heartbreaking scenes when he came to Fritch and saw the town in the wildfire’s aftermath firsthand.

In the Loop and Ready to Act

Tzu Chi USA was part of the emergency response mechanism from the beginning. The State Operations Center (SOC), run by the Texas Division of Emergency Management and serving as the state warning point and primary direction and control facility, had contacted Tzu Chi alongside other members of the emergency operations network.

The fire had just started on February 26, and on February 28 we attended the SOC’s meeting, so we knew everything.

The Texas SOC held daily meetings with updates on fire containment, evacuation, etc. On March 1, within days of the disaster’s start, the SOC requested financial assistance for those impacted by the wildfires. Representing Tzu Chi USA, Yuanliang Ling told them, “We can help.” 

Tzu Chi USA’s Central Region, which serves Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee, has been part of the emergency response mechanism in Texas since 2006. “Every disaster, we get a notice and attend the meeting. Almost 18 years,” Ling shared. 

The Texas SOC introduced Ling to Janelle Manahem, the Chairperson for the Texas Panhandle VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster).

We bring all the organizations together that can help those in disasters with the immediate needs that occur to make sure they receive as much help as possible.

In discussion with Menahem, Tzu Chi planned to hold its first disaster relief distribution at Celebration Family Church in Fritch on March 8. 

The team started by securing transportation, yet, as Ling recounted, “That week was Texas spring break, so it was hard to get rental cars. I finally got one at four o’clock in the morning.” They also wanted a professional driver for safety reasons, as Fritch is a six-hour drive from Dallas, where the Tzu Chi team would depart from. Not only was a driver found, but one volunteer told Ling, “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for everything, okay?”

A supply of eco-blankets was ready since the Central Region keeps many on hand, and they had asked Tzu Chi USA Headquarters for help with preparing the required number of debit cards. “In about 36 hours, everything was done and ready to go,” Ling recalled. 

Ling came to Fritch before Tzu Chi’s scheduled distribution and soon learned that a change of venue would be necessary as another tragedy had struck the town. On March 5, Volunteer Fire Chief Zeb Smith was the first on the scene of a house fire and entered the burning structure to see if anyone needed rescue. He collapsed inside from a heart attack in the line of duty and later died at the hospital. 

During a press conference about the incident, Brandon Strope, a spokesperson for the Hutchinson County Office for Emergency Management, pointed out that while the house fire was a separate incident, volunteer firefighters, with unwavering dedication, had been battling the uncontained Smokehouse Creek Fire and other wildfires in the Panhandle for nine straight days, so fatigue and strain may have impacted what happened to Fire Chief Smith. The Volunteer Fire Chief’s selfless service touched the nation’s heart and that of Tzu Chi volunteers, who prepared condolences and a donation for Zeb Smith’s family. 

Moreover, as the town was now organizing a visitation for their beloved Fire Chief at the Celebration Family Church on March 8, the Tzu Chi team arranged to move its disaster relief distribution to the City of Borger, 12 miles from Fritch. Tzu Chi would set up at the Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC) arranged for the wildfire disaster. MARCs are an efficient system, as Yuanliang Ling described: “Under one roof, all the agencies are there, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, all the insurance agents.”

Delivering Love and Care

On March 8, the Tzu Chi volunteer team gathered at the Central Region Office in Dallas before dawn and set off for the six-hour-long drive to Borger at 5:00 AM. Once they arrived and set up at the venue, the Smokehouse Creek Fire survivors began filing into the MARC, each with a harrowing story to share as they received Tzu Chi’s aid.

My house was destroyed. I feel homeless. My wife and I got out with our two dogs, our prescriptions, and a pathetic overnight bag. The gift you gave me will be a help.

Seeing how Tzu Chi volunteers distribute bamboo banks to encourage giving to help others, Warren Kretzmeier expressed how much he shared that philosophy: “I learned a long time ago when I started doing disaster work with the Red Cross, that the best way to survive is to help other people survive.”

Joy Bierden, another care recipient who came with her father, who is advanced in age, cried as she recounted, “My father’s home was destroyed. He lost everything he had. He’s starting over with nothing.” As her dad received Tzu Chi’s cash card, she said, “You have no idea how you make our hearts feel. We’re very grateful.”

Forty-nine families received Tzu Chi’s aid that day. Fritch City Manager Christina Athey also accepted Tzu Chi’s condolences and gift for Fire Chief Smith’s family. “We received $2,000 on behalf of our hero Zeb Smith. We’re going to use it to benefit our fire department,” she said, the family’s response keeping Smith’s selfless spirit alive.

Helping Fritch Residents

On March 15, Tzu Chi volunteers brought relief directly to the severely impacted town of Fritch, benefiting another 81 families. The distribution took place at the Celebration Family Church, the initial venue, and once again, care recipients shared their experiences, fears, and gratitude for the help.

Stacy McFall remembered the day the wildfire was at her door all too well: “The back of my garage was on fire, and I was trying to get out. And you couldn’t see anything when you pulled out. The fire was all in the road, and I drove through the big fire.” For her and others, the terror was still vividly fresh.

An agitated state of mind is hardly uncommon among disaster survivors. “When they come in, they will always cry. We will let them talk about what’s going on,” Yuanliang Ling said. He always emphasizes the importance of comforting them. “They are high; let them calm down,” he’ll tell the volunteers. “Give them hope to get back to normal life.”

When families come to receive disaster aid, Tzu Chi volunteers can see the sadness and worry etched on their exhausted faces. Photo/Er Guan

And, during distributions, “They change a lot,” Ling added. One way Tzu Chi volunteers facilitate this change of heart is by introducing care recipients to Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms. These succinct observations contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings in a form that’s easy to absorb and apply in daily life, revealing ageless and universal truths that transcend cultural and religious boundaries.

The Central Region has a printed sheet with 88 sentences, each a Jing Si Aphorism. “We will ask them, ‘Pick a number 1 to 88,’” Ling shared. Describing how the interaction may proceed, he continued, “‘You picked 45? Okay, what does 45 say?’ And we ask them to read it. It will touch their hearts.” 

Ling reported, “A lot of people say, ‘Hey, give me another one. I’m going to give it to my friend, my family.’” The care recipients receive Tzu Chi’s cash cards afterward, but for many, the aid experience is transformative. They marvel at the fact that “We don’t know you, yet here you are, helping us.”  

After Stacy McFall’s heightened anxiety eased, she said, “I came here, and you all helped me in giving us hope and taught us to be happy with what we have and how to resettle and give to charity. I’m so thankful for what you’ve done and knowing what you all do.”

Tyler McCain, whose family also lost their home and everything inside, said, “The donations that you guys have received and collected and have given us to help us rebuild mean everything to us.” Dwight Kirksey, Lead Pastor at the Celebration Family Church, expressed thanks on behalf of the community.

We’ve been struggling during this major fire, and we feel your love and the peace that comes with you guys. You have shown your compassion to our friends, families, and neighbors. We thank all of you for being here today.

As Tzu Chi volunteers strive to relieve disaster survivors’ distress, smiles return to their faces. Photo/Er Guan

Reflecting on her first experience with Tzu Chi, Janell Menahem, from Texas Panhandle VOAD, shared, “I’m thankful for your organization. I knew of you, but I had not had the pleasure of meeting everyone, and everyone is so nice and humble.”

Menahem also took note of Tzu Chi’s eco-blankets: “I’ve seen several children walking out with the blankets and just rubbing on them to see how soft they are and wanting to hold themselves in the blanket like a big hug.” That was heartwarming for the volunteers: Eco-blankets are a staple globally in Tzu Chi’s disaster relief and charity care.

“In the Dallas area, we always keep about 2,000 or 3,000 blankets on hand. Anytime something happens, we can go right away,” Tzu Chi USA Central Region Executive Director Yuanliang Ling says. Moreover, this approach has shown to be helpful, as he proved by recounting one incident from the past: “In 2012, there was a winter storm. About 200 Greyhound buses were stuck in the Dallas station. They didn’t have enough blankets, so the city asked me. I brought about 200 blankets over there.”

Tzu Chi volunteers prepare eco-blankets for distribution during the 2024 Texas wildfire mission. Photo/Er Guan

Eyes on the Future

Day or night, Yuanliang Ling and the Central Region volunteers are ready. “My phone, I can’t turn it off at midnight. I get a lot of phone calls, one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning,” Ling said. And there are the particularities of Texas to contend with: “From December to March is wildfire season. From March to June is tornado season. From June to November, it’s hurricane season. So, the whole year, disasters come in,” he explained. Nonetheless, Texas emergency response mechanisms are always ready. Right alongside, Tzu Chi USA is on standby as well. 

“Our volunteers are always ready. When we send an email, we need to go somewhere, some disaster, and they always respond. No matter if it’s a Saturday or Sunday or Monday to Friday: every day, whatever day we need, the people go. That’s our Tzu Chi volunteers,” Ling is honored to say.

Referring to his leadership role for the Tzu Chi USA Central Region, Yuanliang Ling says, “Everybody knows about Tzu Chi. They know about Y.L.; They call me ‘Y.L.,’ okay?” He chuckles as he adds that at the Dallas Emergency Operations Center, the chief reportedly tells the staff whenever they need help, and if nobody can help, “Last Call: Call Y.L.!”

Tzu Chi USA Central Region volunteers and Yuanliang Ling (third right), the Region’s Executive Director, take a group picture at the disaster relief distribution on March 8, 2024. Photo/Er Guan

“I’ll solve their problem,” Ling says. Yet, it isn’t just him stepping up to the plate; every Tzu Chi volunteer holds this kind of readiness as the ultimate goal in their spiritual path of putting compassion into action.

Master Cheng Yen tells us we need to help people. Wherever we have an opportunity to help people, it’s our fortune, you know?

Helping Texans After the Largest Wildfire in State History

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