RUIDOSO, NM (AP) — Authorities lifted some evacuation orders for a mountain community in drought-stricken southern New Mexico as firefighters worked Saturday to contain a wind-driven blaze that killed two people and destroyed more than 200 houses.
Evacuation orders lifted on Friday evening covered around 60% of the roughly 4,500 people who have been ordered to leave their homes since the blaze began on Tuesday, Ruidoso village spokesman Kerry Gladden said on Saturday. , to the Associated Press. Evacuation estimates were previously put at around 5,000 people.
“The big story is that we’re in restocking mode,” Gladden said earlier at a news conference.
Those evacuation orders that remain in effect could be lifted in the coming days, officials said.
Those waiting to return included Barbara Arthur, the owner of a 28-site wooded RV park that had been damaged by the wind but did not burn.
‘We feel blessed,’ said Arthur, who was staying at a motel on Saturday and preparing taco ingredients to take to another RV park for dinner with people displaced by the fire, including some of his tenants. .
Arthur said the fire happened less than half a mile (0.8 kilometres) from her park and she saw flames while evacuating. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced in my 71 years of life,” she said.
Bob Moroney, who works for a company that handles overnight rentals at Ruidoso River Resort, said three different groups, about 15 people in total, have been displaced by the fire and are staying in units at the resort.
“These are literally people who left for work in the morning and never came home,” he said, adding that for many their homes are “total losses.” It’s just chimneys and foundations at this point.
Moroney, a qualified broker for Keller Williams Casa Ideal, said for now the displaced are just trying to decompress as they find insurance and other next steps.
Fire incident commander Dave Bales said crews worked to extinguish hot spots and clear lines along the perimeter of the fire to prevent the fire from spreading. The fire was not brought under control, but Bales expressed a mixture of satisfaction with the work done so far and the outlook for the days to come.
Saturday’s weather conditions looked favorable with reduced wind and increased humidity, Bales said. “We have lines. We just want to make sure they hold up in this wind,” he said.
The fire and the winds that spread it brought down power lines and knocked out power to 18,000 customers. Power has been restored to all but a few dozen customers, said Wilson Guinn, an official with Public Service Co.
But people returning home should be careful and call utility officials if they encounter downed lines, Guinn said.
“We may have missed something,” Guinn said. “Don’t try to touch them, fix them, roll them up, whatever.”
Gladden, the village spokesman, said residents should also be aware that high winds earlier in the week may have damaged trees that could still fall or lose limbs.
“It is significant that what triggered this whole event was a major windstorm,” she said.
Hotlines came on Friday afternoon as residents reported more smoke, which Fire Information Officer Mike De Fries said was caused by outbreaks inside the building. blaze as flames found pockets of unburned fuel.
The fire started in the neighborhood and then spread to more remote areas, De Fries said on Saturday. Authorities are investigating the cause.
“What you have here in Ruidoso are stretches where houses are destroyed, several houses are destroyed in the neighborhoods,” De Fries said. “And then there is the clear evidence and the trace of the fire as it progressed further north and west and in some cases from neighborhood to neighborhood as it burned through north and east of the village of Ruidoso.”
Authorities have yet to release the names of the deceased couple. Their bodies were found after worried family members contacted police, saying the couple had planned to evacuate on Tuesday when the fire erupted, but were not found later that day .
On Saturday, the fire had burned 9.6 square miles (25 square kilometers) of woods and brush.
Warmer, drier weather, coupled with decades of fire suppression, has contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists say. The problem is exacerbated by a 20-plus-year Western mega-drought that studies have shown is linked to human-induced climate change.
There are other fires in the state, including the smaller Nogal Canyon Fire northwest of Ruidoso. That fire was caused by downed power lines, De Fries said, and burned six homes and eight outbuildings. People were ordered to leave the area.
“We’re in a time right now, albeit very early in the year, where places like New Mexico have had additional periods of extremely dry weather,” De Fries said. “Combining that with some winds, you can see by the number of fires that are happening and the number of new starts every day and every week that fire conditions are a big concern.”
A decade ago, Ruidoso was the site of the most destructive wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history when more than 240 homes burned and nearly 70 square miles (181 square kilometers) of forest were blackened by a fire caused by lightning.
While many older residents call Ruidoso home year-round, the population of around 8,000 swells to around 25,000 during the summer months as Texans and New Mexicans from warmer climes seek respite.
This story has been corrected to spell a Fire Information Officer’s last name as De Fries, not DeFries.
Associated Press reporter Julie Walker contributed to this report.