NATIONAL NEWS

Rain helps 1,000 firefighters slow big New Mexico blazes as Biden approves disaster relief

Jun 20, 2024, 10:42 AM | Updated: 8:10 pm

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — More than 1,000 firefighters in New Mexico took advantage of a break in the weather on Thursday to get the upper hand — for now — on a pair of wildfires that have killed two people, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands to flee.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for parts of southern New Mexico, freeing up funding and more resources as crews worked to keep the flames from spreading. Their efforts have gotten a boost from a storm system that brought with it rain, hail and cooler temperatures to the mountain village of Ruidoso and other parts of the state.

“The fire has lost momentum,” Arthur Gonzales, the fire behavior analyst for the federal attack team, told residents at a community meeting in Alamogordo on Thursday night. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s really changed that fire behavior,” he said, noting that very little growth is expected over the next few days.

But firefighters know it’s a brief respite given the dry tinderbox conditions that helped fuel the fires in the first place. Within days, the fires have consumed an area half the size of Washington, D.C.

“What we’re really focusing on now at this point, is when might we see this return to active fire spread?” Gonzales said. “Is there potential for this to start picking up and moving again?”

Federal and local officials said evacuation orders likely would remain in place for days in some places as crews snuff out hot spots around Ruidoso and law officers patrol streets to keep potential looters away.

Despite some reports that the fires were “human caused,” federal incident commander Dave Gessar said the causes are under investigation and remain “undetermined.”

The federal disaster declaration will help with recovery efforts, including temporary housing, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property and other emergency work in Lincoln County and on lands belonging to the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

Residents fled the larger of the two fires with little notice as it swept into neighborhoods on Monday. More areas were evacuated on Tuesday as the fire ballooned, consuming homes nestled among the the ponderosa pines that dominate the hillsides.

An estimated 1,400 structures have been destroyed or damaged, and Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford has estimated about half were homes. Whole portions of some communities were lost, he said.

“These are things that are burnt to the foundations and all the trees around it,” he said. “It’s devastating.”

Authorities say a 60-year-old man who died was found near the popular Swiss Chalet Inn in Ruidoso. His family said he had arranged for a ride from friends but they were unable to get to him Monday since the roads were blocked. It appeared he was overcome after he tried to set out on foot.

On Wednesday, officers discovered the skeletal remains of an unidentified second person in the driver’s seat of a burned vehicle.

A couple of residents have been driving around Ruidoso and neighboring Alto, providing reports via social media of what they are seeing. There are neighborhoods where the ground was turned to ash, the trees were blackened and homes were reduced to their foundations, with only fireplaces remaining.

“I am speechless. I’m so sorry everyone,” said Logan Fle, as he drove down one road.

Much of the Southwest has been exceedingly dry and hot in recent months. Those conditions, along with strong wind, whipped the flames out of control, rapidly advancing the South Fork Fire into Ruidoso in a matter of hours. Evacuations extended to hundreds of homes, businesses, a regional medical center and the Ruidoso Downs horse track.

Nationwide, wildfires have scorched more than 3,344 square miles (8,660 square kilometers) this year — a figure higher than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nearly 20 wildfires burning in California, Arizona, Colorado and Washington state and elsewhere are considered large and uncontained.

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Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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AP Ruidoso wildfires page: https://apnews.com/hub/ruidoso

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