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News / Nation & World

Cooler temps and rain could help corral blazes that forced thousands to flee New Mexico village

By MORGAN LEE and ANDRÉS LEIGHTON, Associated Press
Published: June 19, 2024, 9:57am

ROSWELL, N.M. — Cooler weather — and the chance of rain — could bring some relief this week to firefighters battling blazes in southern New Mexico that killed one person, damaged hundreds of structures and forced thousands to evacuate.

Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee immediately with little notice. Weather patterns are expected to shift Wednesday with moisture from a tropical wave in the Gulf of Mexico, said Joshua Schroeder of the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

“Today was really our last dry day,” he said late Tuesday. “Rains will then peak into Thursday and diminish by the weekend.”

On the downside, he said, some shifts in wind were possible later Wednesday, and rain could lead to flash flooding in newly burned areas.

Ruidoso and much of the Southwest has been exceedingly dry and hot this spring. Those conditions, along with strong wind, whipped flames out of control Monday and Tuesday, rapidly advancing the South Fork Fire into the village. Along with homes and businesses, a regional medical center and the Ruidoso Downs horse track were evacuated.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office confirmed one fatality as a result of the fire but said it had no further details.

About 1,400 structures have been destroyed or damaged, but it’s unclear how many were homes. A flyover to provide more accurate mapping and a better assessment of damage is being organized, Lujan Grisham said.

Ardis Holder left Ruidoso with her two young daughters, her gas tank nearly on empty and praying that they’d make it out safe. She was sure the house she rented in the village she grew up in is gone, based on the maps she’s seen so far.

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“We were already seeing where all the fire hit, it’s everywhere,” she said late Tuesday from a shelter in nearby Roswell. “If there’s something standing, that’s awesome. But, if not, we were prepared for the worst.”

Lujan Grisham declared a county-wide state of emergency that extended to the neighboring Mescalero Apache Reservation where both fires started and deployed National Guard troops. The declaration unlocks additional funding and resources to manage the crisis.

Nationwide, wildfires have scorched more than 3,280 square miles (8,495 square kilometers) this year — a figure higher than the 10-year averages, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 20 wildfires currently burning are considered large and uncontained, including blazes in California and Washington state.

Lujan Grisham said the two southern New Mexico wildfires together have consumed more than 31 square miles (80 square kilometers). The exact causes of the blazes hasn’t been determined, but the Southwest Coordination Center listed them as human-caused.

“We are deploying every available resource to control these fires.” she said.

While many older residents call Ruidoso home year-round, the population of around 7,000 people expands to about 25,000 during the warmer months, when New Mexicans and Texans from hotter climates seek the cool of the leafy aspen trees, hiking trails and a chance to go fishing.

Nestled within the Lincoln National Forest, Ruidoso boasts nearby amenities including a casino, golf course and ski resort operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe. Horse races at the Ruidoso Downs also draw crowds as home to one of the sport’s richest quarter-horse competitions.

Ruidoso residents fled Monday through traffic-clogged downtown streets some described as apocalyptic, with smoke darkening the evening sky, embers raining down and 100-foot (30-meter) flames in the distance climbing over a ridgeline.

The evacuation order came so quickly that she Christy Hood and her husband Richard only had time to grab their two children and two dogs. Heavy traffic on the way out turned what should have been a 15-minute drive into a harrowing two-hour ordeal.

“As we were leaving, there were flames in front of me and to the side of me,” said Hood, a real estate agent in Ruidoso. “And all the animals were just running — charging — trying to get out.”

On social media posts, Ruidoso officials didn’t mince words: “GO NOW: Do not attempt to gather belongings or protect your home. Evacuate immediately.”

As Jacquie and Ernie Escajeda left church Monday in Ruidoso, they saw smoke rise above a mountain behind their house.

They kept a close eye on their cellphones and turned on the radio for updates. There was no “get ready,” nor “get set” — it was just “go,” Ernie Escajeda said. They grabbed legal documents and other belongings and left.

On Tuesday, the couple got a call from friends who are on vacation in Utah but have a home in Ruidoso that they’ve been told was destroyed, Jacquie Escajeda said.

“They lost their home,” she said. “There’s only one home standing in their whole little division that they live in, so there are a lot of structures lost. We have no idea if we’re going to have a home to go to.”

Public Service Company of New Mexico shut off power to part of the village due to the fire.

Lujan Grisham said cellphone service had been affected in some communities near the fire, and mobile cell towers were being set up to restore communications.

Amid highway closures, many evacuees had little choice but to flee eastward and to the city of Roswell, 75 miles (121 kilometers) away, where hotels and shelters quickly filled. A rural gas station along the evacuation route was overrun with people and cars.

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