New Mexico governor declares emergency as thousands flee wildfires that have damaged 500 structures

ByMorgan Lee AP logo
Tuesday, June 18, 2024
Residents flee New Mexican village as wildfires bear down on homes
Fast-moving wildfires bore down on the mountain village of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico, prompting residents to evacuate their homes with little time to rescue belongings.

SANTA FE, New Mexico -- Thousands of residents fled their homes as a wildfire swept into the mountain village of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico on Tuesday. The fire destroyed or damaged more than 500 structures, including an unknown number of homes.

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.

"The horrific South Fork Fire and Salt Fire have ravaged our lands and property and forced thousands to flee their homes," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said. "We are deploying every available resource to control these fires."

Lujan Grisham told reporters at a news conference in Santa Fe Tuesday afternoon that there have been no reports of any serious injuries.

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

She said more than 500 structures have been damaged, and the entire village of Ruidoso, population 7,000, has been evacuated. 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 have been consumed, an area larger than 31 square miles.

"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 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, 15-year-old daughter, and 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 southeast of Albuquerque, when they heard about a fire in a nearby community about 20 miles 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 cell phones 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 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 wind that was taking this fire all along the ridge. We could literally see 100-foot 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 away, where hotels and shelters quickly filled. A rural gas station along the evacuation route was overrun with people and cars.

"The Walmart parking lot is packed with people in RVs," Enrique Moreno, director of Roswell Community Disaster Relief, said. "Every single hotel in Roswell is filled to capacity right now. We go to the gas stations and we see just a bunch of people hanging around their cars."

New Mexico has grappled in recent years with a devastating series of wildfires, including a 2022 blaze caused by a pair of prescribed fires set by the U.S. Forest Service that merged during drought conditions to become the largest wildfire in the state's recorded history. That year, a separate fire consumed 200 homes in Ruidoso and resulted in two deaths.

On Tuesday, two fires menaced Ruidoso, a high-altitude vacation getaway nestled within the Lincoln National Forest near amenities including a casino, golf course, and ski resort operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

The nearby horse racing track at Ruidoso Downs said its facilities were safe in a Tuesday morning post on social media without responding to phone calls and messages. Beyond the track, animals and livestock were moved to the New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Roswell, including five horses that arrived Monday night, as well as four llamas, according to Leslie Robertson, the office manager.

The South Fork Fire started Monday on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, where the tribal president issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency. It was burning on tribal and U.S. Forest Service land within areas surrounding Ruidoso. Wind-whipped flames advanced rapidly on Ruidoso.

A second fire, called the Salt Fire, also was burning on the Mescalero reservation and southwest of Ruidoso. It was over 7 square miles as of Tuesday morning with no containment, the forestry division said.

In California, firefighters have increased their containment of a large wildfire that is burning in steep, hard-to-reach areas in mountains north of Los Angeles, officials said. But hot, dry, windy weather could challenge their efforts Tuesday.