Crews fight the fires in New Mexico while some evacuations are lifted

RUIDOSO, NM (AP) — Authorities have lifted some evacuation orders for a mountain community in southern New Mexico as firefighters worked Saturday to contain a wind-driven fire that killed two people and destroyed over 200 homes.

The evacuation orders, which were lifted late Friday, affected about 60% of the estimated 4,500 people who were originally ordered to leave their homes since the fire broke out on Tuesday, but exact figures weren’t immediately available, said Kerry Gladden, spokeswoman for Village of Ruidoso, told The Associated Press on Saturday. Evacuation estimates were previously reported by around 5,000 people.

“The big story is that we’re in a repopulation mode,” Gladden said earlier during a media briefing.

Those evacuation orders, which are still in effect, could be lifted in the coming days, officials said.

Fire commander Dave Bales said crews were working to clear hotspots and remove lines along the fire to prevent the fire from spreading. The fire cannot be contained but Bales expressed a mixture of satisfaction with the work done so far and prospects for the coming days.

Weather conditions on Saturday appeared favorable with less wind and increased humidity, Bales said. “We have ropes in there. We just want to make sure they hold up in this wind,” he said.

The fire and the winds that spread it tore down power lines and shut off power for 18,000 customers. Power has been restored to all but a few dozen customers, said Wilson Guinn, manager of Public Service Co.

But people returning to their homes would need to be cautious and call utility officials if they encounter downed lines, Guinn said.

“We may have missed something,” said Guinn. “Don’t try to touch them, fix them, roll them up, whatever.”

Gladden, the village spokesman, said residents also need to be aware that strong winds earlier in the week could have damaged trees, which could still fall or lose branches.

“It’s important that this whole event was triggered by a violent storm,” she said.

Hotlines flared Friday afternoon when residents reported more smoke, which Fire Information Officer Mike De Fries said was caused by flare-ups inside the fire 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. The authorities are investigating the cause.

“What you have here in Ruidoso are sections where houses are being destroyed, several houses are being destroyed in neighborhoods,” De Fries said. “And then there is the clear evidence and trail of the fire as it spread further north and west and in some cases from neighborhood to neighborhood as it burned through the north and east sides of the village of Ruidoso.”

Authorities have not yet released the names of the deceased couple. Their bodies were found after concerned family members contacted police and said the couple had planned to evacuate on Tuesday when the fire erupted but was not reported later that day.

As of Saturday, the fire had burned 9.6 square miles (25 square kilometers) of wood and scrub.

Hotter and drier weather combined with decades of firefighting have contributed to an increase in acres burned by wildfires, according to fire scientists. The problem is compounded by a more than 20-year western mega-drought that studies link to human-caused climate change.

There are other blazes in the state, including the smaller Nogal Canyon fire northwest of Ruidoso. This fire was caused by downed power lines, De Fries said, and burned down six homes and eight outbuildings. People were asked to leave the area.

“Even though it’s very early in the year, we’re at a time right now where places like New Mexico have had additional stretches of just extremely dry weather,” De Fries said. “When you combine that with some winds, you can see from the number of fires happening each day and week and the number of restarts that fire conditions are a big problem.”

Ruidoso was the scene of the most destructive wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history a decade ago, when more than 240 homes burned and nearly 70 square miles (181 square kilometers) of forest were blackened by a lightning-triggered fire.

While many older residents call Ruidoso year-round home, the population swells from about 8,000 people to about 25,000 in the summer months as Texans and New Mexicans from hotter climates seek rest.

Fans also flock to Ruidoso Downs, home of one of the richest quarter horse competitions in the sport. The racing season is expected to start on May 27 and horses entering there will not be in danger as the fire department uses the facility as a base. Crews fight the fires in New Mexico while some evacuations are lifted

John Verrall

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