Two wildfires in New Mexico burn out of control and force evacuations

Both fires were listed as being zero percent contained as of midday Tuesday, and the causes of the fires were still under investigation.
Last Updated : 19 June 2024, 03:51 IST

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Two wildfires that began Monday in southern New Mexico and forced the evacuations of thousands of people were still burning out of control Tuesday with firefighters struggling to contain blazes that had consumed more than 18,000 acres, authorities said.

At least one person has been killed in the fires, said Michael Coleman, communications director for the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. No additional details were available Tuesday evening.

The larger fire, known as the South Fork Fire, was discovered around 9 a.m. Monday in the Mescalero Apache tribal area and grew rapidly, showing “extreme fire behavior,” fire officials said.

People were being evacuated from the village of Ruidoso and the surrounding area Tuesday.

“Please do not try to gather belongings or protect your home — go now!” the village of Ruidoso advised its residents.

A “creeping” fire, the South Fork Fire crossed from the Mescalero Apache Reservation to Forest Service land and private land and has affected 500 structures. It covered roughly 13,000 acres Tuesday morning.

A second fire, called the Salt Fire, was discovered at 2 pm Monday and was still exclusively on tribal land in mostly inaccessible mountain terrain Tuesday, covering nearly 5,000 acres.

By Tuesday afternoon, people in Ruidoso Downs, near the village of Ruidoso, were urged to evacuate immediately, as the Salt Fire was “making a run” toward the city, according to post on social media by the Ruidoso government.

Both fires were listed as being zero percent contained as of midday Tuesday, and the causes of the fires were still under investigation.

George Ducker, the communications coordinator of the New Mexico Forestry Division, said that Ruidoso was in a “rural area,” and that people would be evacuating with livestock.

Evacuees were heading east to Roswell, New Mexico. Some roads in other directions were closed because of the fires.

Enrique Moreno, founder and director of Roswell Community Disaster Relief, said he started receiving calls from evacuees looking for help around 5 p.m. Monday. Many of those fleeing Ruidoso had parked at a gas station, Wal-Mart or other retail parking lots around Roswell until shelters began opening late Monday. Together with Pecos Valley Public Services, Moreno’s group has been connecting evacuees with resources, including food and other supplies, and information about shelters and other community services.

“This has been the biggest disaster we’ve had to deal with,” Moreno said.

The Red Cross, which opened four shelter facilities in the state to help people fleeing the fires, said that as of Monday night it had assisted 270 residents.

On Tuesday, Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency in Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation because of the fires. The declaration authorizes “additional funding and resources to manage this crisis,” she said in a post on social media.

In a statement, the governor urged “residents of Ruidoso and the surrounding areas to remain calm and heed official instructions to help minimize risk."

The fires were exacerbated by wind and low humidity, according to New Mexico Fire Information, a website run by federal and state agencies.

Federal, tribal, state and local departments were in an “all-hands-on-deck situation,” Ducker said. “Fire crews are working as quickly and safely as possible, focused on structure protection, and trying to put dozer lines in advance of the fire front,” he said. A dozer line is a fire line put in place by a bulldozer.

Explaining the rapid growth of the flames Monday into Tuesday, authorities said the blazes were characterized by “long-range spotting,” when embers move out with the wind and may ignite new fires, “and intense heat with plume domination,” when flames reach very high. Flames were reaching heights “in the hundreds of feet,” Ducker said. “The heat in the interior is very, very hot.”

Southern New Mexico has been one of the most drought-stricken parts of the country. Ducker said the region has been in a drought for a decade. “This is climate change. It is hot, and it is dry. There is some moisture potentially coming on Wednesday, but I’m not holding my breath,” he said.

Published 19 June 2024, 03:51 IST

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