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After Fire, Panhandle Town's Future is Unclear

A month after a fire destroyed 225 homes near Fritch, the small Panhandle town is grappling with questions about its future after years of drought and a steadily declining population.

The town is now grappling with questions about its future and how to provide aid to the hundreds of residents displaced by the fire.

FRITCH — A month after a fire roared through this Panhandle town, all that remains of Sam Jones’ house is its concrete foundation, a row of charred pine trees and the underground storm shelter where he now lives.

The fire, which is under investigation, destroyed 225 homes and has left the town grappling with questions about its future as it struggles to find the money needed to help hundreds of displaced residents. Fritch, population 2,000, was already reeling from years of drought and a declining population that has strained local resources. City officials now predict that as many as half of the residents who lost homes will not return.

“I’ve watched Fritch shrivel up,” Jones, who showers at his neighbor’s, said during a break from clearing rubble. His property overlooks Lake Meredith, a national recreation area and manmade reservoir that once measured more than 100 feet deep. The lake, which Jones said “looks more like a canyon” these days, hit a record low of 26 feet in August.

As the lake dried up, so did much of the city’s tourism business.

Along the main road, a faded boat storage facility lies empty, its windowpanes shattered. On a nearby lot that local residents call the “Fritch Boat Cemetery,” dozens of vessels are propped upright in the sand. Even neighborhoods that escaped the fire are peppered with abandoned trailers and houses with collapsing roofs.

At the same time, prosecutors are investigating former city officials for possible  theft and misuse of funds, said Mark Snider, the district attorney who has referred the case to the Texas attorney general’s office. A year ago, Fritch was nearly half a million dollars in debt, said the interim city manager, John Horst, who took over after his predecessor resigned.

Government aid has been limited. The Texas Department of Transportation recently approved $15,000 to help residents carpool to work, and a few residents have qualified for low-interest loans from the Texas Small Business Association. Most people are relying on friends and donations. The damage was not considered extensive enough for federal relief.

“We’re in this kind of limbo right now” because charity organizations have been able to provide immediate aid but not long-term assistance, said Calvin Winters, a preacher at the First Southern Baptist Church of Fritch. “The real work is ahead of us.”

About 40 percent of the families affected do not have insurance to cover the damage, city officials said.

“Homeowners don’t know what they’re doing yet," Winters said. “Frankly, you have to have the funds.”

Madeline Lyckman, a bartender who lost her home and is now living with her parents across town, said she planned to remain in Fritch and hoped to receive a mobile home from a family friend.

Lyckman is helping to organize a “Redneck Olympics” benefit for victims of the fire. Locals will play horseshoes with toilet seats and race lawnmowers in a charity fund-raiser, she said.

“The people in the area are very, very drained,” she said. “We need outside help.”

Fritch is continuing to depend on tourism, Horst said. “If we could attract more people to the trails and camping, I think that would be a big benefit,” he said.

The drought has complicated the efforts.

“We’re definitely seeing more boating activity” than during the most severe years of the drought, said Bob McGuire, superintendent of the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. “But we still have a ways to go.”

After a recent rain, thousands of yucca tree saplings began to sprout in the charred earth outside of town. Whether the local economy can achieve similar regrowth is still unknown.

Asked about Fritch’s future, Lyckman gestured to the depreciated lake. “We’ll dry up,” she said.

Then she reconsidered. “You know, we’ve made it through before,” she said. “We always have a comeback.”

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