NATIONAL NEWS

At least 1 dead in New Mexico wildfire that forced thousands to flee, governor’s office says

Jun 17, 2024, 10:00 PM | Updated: Jun 18, 2024, 9:50 pm

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled a mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings, and killed at least one person. Officials warned the danger isn’t over.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency that covers Ruidoso and neighboring tribal lands and deployed National Guard troops to the area. A top-level fire management team is expected to take over Wednesday, and winds will continue to challenge crews, officials said.

The governor’s office confirmed the fatality but said it had no other details.

Christy Hood, a real estate agent in Ruidoso, said the evacuation order Monday came so quickly that she and her husband Richard, only had time to grab their two children and two dogs.

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

The family headed out of Ruidoso, but heavy traffic turned what should have been a 15-minute drive to leave town into a harrowing two-hour ordeal.

“It looked like the sky was on fire. It was bright orange,” she said. “Honestly, it looked like the apocalypse. It was terrifying and sparks were falling on us.”

More than 500 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 was planned Tuesday night, Lujan Grisham said.

“It will really allow us to see inside the fire in a way that we cannot do now because it is too dangerous to be in the heart of the fire,” she said.

The emergency declaration frees up funding and resources to manage the crisis in Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Lujan Grisham said two fires have together consumed more than 31 square miles (80 square kilometers).

Other than the one fatality, no one has been seriously injured, she said.

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.

On Tuesday, two wildfires menaced Ruidoso, a high-altitude vacation getaway nestled within the Lincoln National Forest with a casino, golf course and ski resort operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe nearby. What caused the blazes hasn’t been determined, but the Southwest Coordination Center listed them as human-caused.

New Mexico has grappled in recent years with a devastating series of wildfires, including a 2022 blaze caused by a pair of prescribed fires set by the U.S. Forest Service that merged during drought conditions to become the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. That year, a separate fire consumed 200 homes in Ruidoso and resulted in two deaths.

This week, Ruidoso officials didn’t mince words as smoke darkened the evening sky Monday and 100-foot (30-meter) flames climbed a ridgeline: “GO NOW: Do not attempt to gather belongings or protect your home. Evacuate immediately.”

Jacquie and Ernie Escajeda were at church Monday in Ruidoso, located about 130 miles (210 kilometers) southeast of Albuquerque, when they heard about a fire about 20 miles (30 kilometers) away. By mid-morning, smoke was rising above a mountain behind their house and the smell filled the air.

The couple started watching 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 headed out.

“Within an hour, the police department, the fire department, everybody’s there blocking, barricading the roads to our area and telling everybody to leave,” he said. “Thank God we were ready.”

Earlier Tuesday, they learned the home of their best friends didn’t survive the fire, Jacquie Escajeda said.

“There’s only one home standing in their whole little division that they live in, so there are a lot of structures lost,” she said. “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 wildfire. The Ruidoso Downs that hosts horse races and the Lincoln Medical Center were evacuated later Tuesday.

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

“The Walmart parking lot is packed with people in RVs,” said Enrique Moreno, director of Roswell Community Disaster Relief. “Every single hotel in Roswell is filled to capacity right now. … We go to the gas stations and we see just a bunch of people hanging around their cars.”

Animals and livestock were moved to the state fairgrounds in Roswell, including five horses that arrived Monday night, as well as four llamas, according to Leslie Robertson, the office manager. Robertson said 30 more horses were headed her way Tuesday evening.

Both the South Fork Fire and the smaller Salt Fire started on the Mescalero Apache Reservation where the tribe’s president declared a state of emergency.

___

Associated Press writers Sarah Brumfield in Washington, D.C.; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Rio Yamat and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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