July 20th, 2024

At least 1 dead in New Mexico wildfire that forced thousands to flee, governor’s office says

By Morgan Lee, The Associated Press on June 18, 2024.

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – At least one person has died in a New Mexico wildfire that has forced thousands to evacuate, the governor’s office said Tuesday.

“We don’t have any additional details,” said Michael Coleman, communications director for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “Only one fatality as a result of the fire.”

The governor declared a county-wide state of emergency that extended to neighboring tribal lands and deployed National Guard troops after residents fled under evacuation orders Monday with little time to rescue belongings.

Earlier, Lujan Grisham said at a news conference: “We are deploying every available resource to control these fires.”

She said the magnitude of the fires is beyond local control and requires immediate state intervention to protect public health, safety and welfare.

More than 500 structures have been damaged and the entire village of Ruidoso, population 7,000, has been evacuated, the governor said. She said it’s unclear how many homes were engulfed by the fast-moving flames because the extreme fire activity continues to prevent authorities from safely accessing the area to assess the damage.

“It’s too dangerous,” she said.

State Forester Laura McCarthy described the fires as “dangerous and fast moving” in strong winds up to 20 mph.

“Extreme fire behavior,” she said. McCarthy said a cold front was moving into the area and should bring rain to the area by Wednesday or Thursday. But she said that was “both bad news and good news” because while the precipitation would be welcome, stronger winds would not.

The governor said her emergency declaration unlocks additional funding and resources to manage the crisis in Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation. She said nearly 20,000 acres (8,100 hectares) have been consumed, an area larger than 31 square miles (80 square kilometers).

“The fire is out of control, but I’ve heard of no injuries or fatalities,” Ruidoso City Councilor Greg Cory said during a brief telephone interview from Clovis, New Mexico, where he and his wife and grandson arrived after driving about three hours Monday evening from Ruidoso.

They were among hundreds of Ruidoso residents who fled for their lives through traffic-clogged downtown streets in the normally pastoral vacation destination, as smoke darkened the evening sky and 100-foot (30-meter) flames climbed a ridgeline.

Christy Hood, a real estate agent in Ruidoso, said Monday’s order to evacuate came so quickly that she and her husband, Richard, only had time to grab their 11-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter, and their two dogs.

“We don’t have clothes or a toothbrush,” she said. “We truly don’t have anything.”

Police were going up and down the streets telling people to drop everything and go, she said.

“As we were leaving, there were flames in front of me and to the side of me,” she said. “And all the animals were just running – charging – trying to get out.”

They headed out of Ruidoso, but heavy traffic turned what’s normally a 15-minute drive into a harrowing two-hour ordeal.

“It looked like the sky was on fire. It was bright orange,” she said. “Honestly, it looked like the apocalypse. It was terrifying and sparks were falling on us.”

On social media posts, Ruidoso officials didn’t mince words: “GO NOW: Do not attempt to gather belongings or protect your home. Evacuate immediately.”

Jacquie and Ernie Escajeda were at church Monday in Ruidoso, located about 130 miles (210 kilometers) southeast of Albuquerque, when they heard about a fire in a nearby community about 20 miles (30 kilometers) away. They said they didn’t think much of it, but by mid-morning, smoke rose above a mountain behind their house and the smell filled the air.

The couple started watching their cellphones and turned on the radio for updates. There was no “get ready,” nor “get set” – it was just “go,” Ernie Escajeda said. They grabbed legal documents and other belongings and headed out.

“Within an hour, the police department, the fire department, everybody’s there blocking, barricading the roads to our area and telling everybody to leave,” he said. “Thank God we were ready.”

On Tuesday, the couple got a call from friends who are on vacation in Utah but have a home in Ruidoso that they’ve been told was destroyed, Jacquie Escajeda said.

“They lost their home,” she said. “There’s only one home standing in their whole little division that they live in, so there are a lot of structures lost. We have no idea if we’re going to have a home to go to.”

Public Service Company of New Mexico shut off power to part of the village due to the fire, which was estimated to be about 22 square miles (56 square kilometers) with no containment, forestry and village officials said Tuesday morning.

Accountant Steve Jones said he and his wife evacuated overnight as emergency crews arrived at their doorstep and dense smoke filled the Ruidoso valley, making it difficult to breathe.

“We had a 40-mph (55-kph) wind that was taking this fire all along the ridge, we could literally see 100-foot (30-meter) flames,” said Jones, who relocated in a camper. “That’s why it consumed so much acreage.”

Amid highway closures, many evacuees had little choice but to flee eastward onto the Great Plains and the city of Roswell, 75 miles (121 kilometers) away, where hotels and shelters quickly filled. A rural gas station along the evacuation route was overrun with people and cars.

___

Associated Press writers Sarah Brumfield in Washington, D.C.; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Rio Yamat in Las Vegas; and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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