Rains, Cooler Weather Help Firefighters Gain Ground on Large Wildfires in Southern New Mexico
Rains, Cooler Weather Help Firefighters Gain Ground on Large Wildfires in Southern New Mexico

By The Associated Press

RUIDOSO, N.M.—Recent rains and cooler weather are helping more than 1,000 firefighters gain ground on two wildfires in southern New Mexico on Saturday that have killed two people, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands to flee.

Fire crews took advantage of temperatures in the 70s, scattered showers and light winds to use bulldozers to dig protective lines while hand crews used shovels in more rugged terrain to battle the fires near the mountain village of Ruidoso.

The South Fork Fire, which reached 26 square miles (67 square kilometers), was 26 percent contained, while the Salt Fire, at 12 square miles (31 square kilometers), was 7 percent contained as of Saturday morning, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Full containment was not expected until July 15, per the agency.

Elsewhere in New Mexico, heavy rain and flash flood warnings prompted officials to order some mandatory evacuations Friday in the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and communities near Albuquerque, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Ruidoso. Las Vegas set up shelters for displaced residents, and some evacuation orders remained in place there on Saturday.

Flash flood warnings were canceled Saturday, though the National Weather Service said afternoon storms could produce excessive runoff and more flooding in the area.

The wildfires have destroyed or damaged an estimated 1,400 structures. Other fallout from the fires—including downed power lines, damaged water, sewer and gas lines, flooding in burn scars—continued “to pose risks to firefighters and the public,” according to a Saturday update from the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department.

Evacuations in areas near Ruidoso and road closures were still in effect. In Ruidoso, full-time residents will be allowed to return Monday, though everyday life won’t return to normal.

“You’re going to need to bring a week’s worth of food, you’re going to need to bring drinking water,” Mayor Lynn Crawford said on Facebook.

Smoke rises from fires in Ruidoso, N.M., on June 17, 2024. (Pam Bonner via AP)

Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham were scheduled to tour the disaster area Saturday.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for parts of southern New Mexico on Thursday, freeing up funding and more resources to 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.

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.

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