Crews battle deadly New Mexico wildfires as clouds and flooding loom


SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Fire crews braced for flooding, lightning and cooling weather as they battled a pair of growing fires Thursday that have killed at least two people while tearing through an evacuated mountain village in southern New Mexico.

Residents of the village of Ruidoso fled the larger fire with little notice as it swept into neighborhoods on Tuesday. The National Weather Service reported overcast skies with temperatures in the 60s (16-21 degrees Celsius) on Thursday morning at an small airport 15 miles (22 kilometers) northeast of Ruidoso.

The fires advanced along the mountain headwaters of Eagle Creek and the Rio Ruidoso with 0% containment Thursday, with crews using heavy equipment to build fire lines while water and retardant dropped from the air.

“The big concern right now is flooding,” Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford told the KWMW “W105” radio on Thursday. “We got less than two-tenths of an inch of rain yesterday but because of all the burn scar, there’s nothing holding it up. We had flooding already over the bridges.”

About 1,400 structures have been destroyed or damaged, and Crawford 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 badly burned 60-year-old man who died was found by the side of the road near the popular Swiss Chalet Inn in Ruidoso. On Wednesday, officers discovered the skeletal remains of an unidentified second person in the driver seat of a burned vehicle.

Hundreds of firefighters have been trying to prevent spot fires.

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

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 burning in California, Washington state and elsewhere are considered large and uncontained.

The two southern New Mexico wildfires have consumed more than 31 square miles (80 square kilometers).

The exact causes of the blazes haven’t been determined, but the Southwest Coordination Center listed them as human-caused.

“This is the one that we always feared the most, and it’s hit,” Crawford said.


Lee reported from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; Anita Snow in Phoenix; Rio Yamat and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.


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