NEW MEXICO, USA — Authorities have 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 over 200 homes.
The evacuation orders lifted late Friday covered about 60% of the estimated 4,500 people ordered to leave their homes since the fire started Tuesday, Village of Ruidoso spokesperson Kerry Gladden told The Associated Press on Saturday. Evacuation estimates were previously reported to be around 5,000 people.
“The big story is we're in a re-population mode," Gladden said earlier during a media briefing.
Those evacuation orders remaining in effect may be lifted in coming days, officials said.
Those waiting to return included Barbara Arthur, the owner of a wooded 28-site RV park that had wind damage but didn’t burn.
“We feel blessed,” said Arthur, who on Saturday was staying at a motel and preparing taco ingredients to take to another RV park for dinner with people displaced by the fire, including some of her tenants.
Arthur said the fire came within a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) of her park and that she saw flames while evacuating. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever been through in my 71 years of living,” she said.
Bob Moroney, who works for a company that manages nightly rentals at Ruidoso River Resort, said three different groups, roughly 15 people overall, were displaced by the fire and are staying in units at the complex.
“These are literally people that left for work in the morning and never went back home,” he said, adding that for many, their homes are “total losses. They’re just down to chimneys and foundations at this point.”
Moroney, a qualifying broker for Keller Williams Casa Ideal, said that for now, the displaced are just trying to decompress as they figure out insurance and other next steps.
Fire incident commander Dave Bales said crews worked to put out hot spots and clear lines along the fire's perimeter to keep the fire from spreading. The fire has no containment but Bales expressed a mix of satisfaction with work done so far and prospects for coming days.
Weather conditions Saturday appeared favorable with reduced wind and increased humidity, Bales said. “We have lines in. We just want to make sure they hold in that wind," he said.
The fire and the winds that spread it downed power lines and knocked out electricity to 18,000 customers. Electricity has been restored to all but a few dozen customers, said Wilson Guinn, a Public Service Co. manager.
But people returning to their homes needed to be cautious 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 spokesperson, said residents also need to be aware that the strong winds earlier in the week may have damaged trees that could still fall or lose limbs.
“It’s important that what started this whole event was a significant wind storm," she said.
Hotlines lit up Friday afternoon as residents reported more smoke, which fire information officer Mike De Fries said was caused by flare-ups within the interior of 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 Saturday. Authorities are investigating the cause.
“What you have here in Ruidoso are stretches where homes are destroyed, multiple homes are destroyed within neighborhoods,” De Fries said. “And then there is the clear evidence and the trail of the fire as it progressed further north and west and in some cases neighborhood to neighborhood as it burned through the Village of Ruidoso’s north and east side.”
Authorities have yet to release the names of the couple who died. Their bodies were found after worried family members contacted police, saying the couple had planned to evacuate Tuesday when the fire exploded but were unaccounted for later that day.
As of Saturday, the fire had burned 9.6 square miles (25 square kilometers) of timber and brush.
Hotter and drier weather coupled with decades of fire suppression have contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists say. The problem is exacerbated by a more than 20-year Western megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change.
There are other blazes in the state, including the smaller Nogal Canyon fire to the northwest of Ruidoso. That fire was caused by downed power lines, De Fries said, and has burned six homes and eight outbuildings. People have been ordered to leave the area.
“We are right now in a time, even though it’s very early in the year, where places like New Mexico have had extra stretches of just extremely dry weather,” De Fries said. “Combining that with some winds, and you can see by the number of fires that are taking place and number of new starts every day and each week that fire conditions are a big concern.”
Ruidoso a decade ago 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 lightning-sparked blaze.
While many older residents call Ruidoso home year round, the population of about 8,000 people expands to about 25,000 during the summer months as Texans and New Mexicans from hotter climates seek respite.