New Mexico wildfires: Governor declares state of emergency as thousands flee

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled a mountain village as a wind-driven wildfire ravaged homes and other buildings and killed at least one person . The authorities warned that the danger was not over.

The governor of New Mexico. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency covering Ruidoso and neighboring tribal lands and deployed National Guard troops to the area. A high-level fire management team is expected to take over Wednesday, and winds will continue to challenge crews, officials said.

The governor’s office confirmed the death but said it had no further details.

Christy Hood, a real estate agent in Ruidoso, said Monday’s evacuation order came so quickly that she and her husband Richard only had time to pick up their two children and two dogs.

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

The family left Ruidoso, but heavy traffic turned what should have been a 15-minute drive out of town 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.

More than 500 structures were destroyed or damaged, but it is clear how many were homes. A flyover intended to provide more precise mapping and a better damage assessment was planned for Tuesday evening, Lujan Grisham said.

“It will really allow us to see inside the fire in a way that we can’t do now because it’s too dangerous to be in the heart of the fire,” she said.

The emergency declaration frees up funds and resources to manage the crisis in Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Lujan Grisham said two fires together consumed more than 31 square miles (80 square kilometers).

Apart from one death, no one was seriously injured, she said.

Nationally, wildfires have affected more than 3,280 square miles (8,495 square kilometers) this year — higher than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Approximately 20 wildfires currently underway are considered significant and include fires in California and Washington State.

On Tuesday, two wildfires threatened Ruidoso, a high-altitude vacation destination nestled in the Lincoln National Forest with a casino, golf course and ski resort operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe nearby. The cause of the fires has not been determined, but the Southwest Coordination Center listed them as human caused.

New Mexico has grappled with a series of devastating wildfires in recent years, including one in 2022. Caused by two prescribed burns set by the United States Forest Service, which coalesced during drought conditions to become the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. That year, another fire consumed 200 houses in Ruidoso And it left two people dead.

This week, Ruidoso officials minced no words as smoke darkened the evening sky Monday and 100-foot flames climbed a ridgeline: “LEAVE NOW: Don’t try to gather your belongings or protect your home. Evacuate immediately.

Jacquie and Ernie Escajeda were at the church in Ruidoso, about 130 miles southeast of Albuquerque, on Monday when they heard about a fire about 19 miles away. By mid-morning, smoke rose above a mountain behind their house and the smell filled the air.

The couple started looking at their cell phones and turned on the radio to keep up to date. There was no “get ready” or “get ready” – it was just “go,” Ernie Escajeda said. They seized legal documents and other personal belongings and left.

“Within an hour, the police, firefighters, everyone was there blocking, barricading the roads leading to our area and telling everyone to leave,” he said. “Thank God we were ready.”

Earlier Tuesday, they learned their best friends’ house had not survived the fire, Jacquie Escajeda said.

“There’s only one house standing in the whole little division they live in, so a lot of structures have been lost,” she said. “We don’t know if we’ll have a home to go to.”

The New Mexico Public Utility Company shut off power to part of the village due to a wildfire. The Ruidoso Downs which hosts horse racing and the Lincoln Medical Center were evacuated later Tuesday.

Due to highway closures, many evacuees had no choice but to flee east to the town of Roswell, 75 miles away, where hotels and shelters were set up . A rural gas station along the evacuation route was overrun by people and cars.

“The Walmart parking lot is full of people in RVs,” said Enrique Moreno, director of Roswell Community Disaster Relief. “Every hotel in Roswell is currently filled to capacity. … We go to gas stations and we just see a bunch of people hanging around their cars.”

The animals and livestock were moved to the state fairgrounds in Roswell, including five horses that arrived Monday evening, along with four llamas, according to Leslie Robertson, the office manager. Robertson said 30 more horses were headed her way Tuesday evening.

The South Fork Fire and the smaller Salt Fire both started on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, where the tribal chairman declared a state of emergency.

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

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