- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

FRITCH, Texas (AP) - Rhonda Fields smelled something burning and just thought her husband had already lit the grill for the family’s steak dinner.

Then she saw on Facebook that there was an evacuation order Sunday afternoon for the area near Fritch - though no reason was given. The couple hopped in their pickup with their two dogs to find out what was going on. When they saw smoke and ash, they decided to go back home to get some valuables in case it was a wildfire.

But before they got there, they were turned away by authorities - who confirmed it was indeed a wildfire.

“It’s gone completely,” said Fields, 47, who bought binoculars and drove to a vantage point away from the growing wildfire and saw their home of a year and a half destroyed by the fast-moving flames that eventually burned more than 150 buildings and forced evacuations. She says they don’t know what they’ll do now.

No smoke was apparent Tuesday in blue skies above the small town of about 2,100 residents. Lower temperatures and wind speeds, and higher humidity were helping those dealing with hotspots in the fire area, where authorities estimate at least 156 structures were destroyed in the blaze.

The fire was 85 percent contained Tuesday night, with little more than hotspots in the burned area, Texas A&M; Forest Service spokesman Troy Duchneaux said. Most of the town’s population was forced to evacuate Sunday but will be allowed to return to their homes Wednesday morning, he said.

Sheriff’s deputies were escorting residents to their homes Tuesday to retrieve medication and important health documents. The residents also will be allowed to see if their pets might be nearby, though they weren’t going to be allowed to go searching for the animals, Hutchinson County Sheriff Don Johnson told residents at a community meeting Tuesday.

“It’s immediate needs,” he said.

Duchneaux said residents whose homes were spared may be able to return later after emergency and utility crews finish assessing damage and searching for potential victims.

The Panhandle wildfire was the first large one this year in the region, which is in the most severe stage of drought after months of well-below rainfall totals. Earlier this year fire officials warned wildfires could be worse in the area than in other parts of the state.

Among the structures destroyed in the fire that started Sunday are 89 homes, all north of Texas 136, which is the main road through Fritch.

Fields said the destruction of their home is the second time in five years the family had lost their belongings.

Last time, her husband Kenneth had taken a job in Florida and their son had driven a trailer carrying their possession to Sunshine State.

“Burned everything we had then,” she said of a fire that started May 8, 2009, when their son had pulled over on the side of a road in Florida.

Karla Burgin’s own home in Fitch was spared by the fire, but she knew her father’s home had been destroyed and she wanted to get inside Tuesday to see what might be left. She said she hopes to salvage her parents’ wedding photos and ones of her when she was a child.

Burgin said her father - who is safe, staying with friends 30 miles south in Amarillo - built the home in Fritch for him and wife. The place was everything to him now, she said, after Burgin’s mother died two years ago.

Her father told her, “Now I’m 72 years old and I don’t have anything,” Burgin recalled.

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