With towering pine trees and cool mountain breezes, a pocket of southern New Mexico draws thousands of tourists and horse racing fans every summer. It’s also a community that knows how devastating wildfires can be.
It was a decade ago that fire ripped through part of the village of Ruidoso, putting the vacation spot on the map with 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.
Now, Mayor Lynn Crawford is rallying heartbroken residents once again as firefighters on Friday tried to keep wind-whipped flames from making another run at the village and the hundreds of homes and summer cabins that dot the surrounding mountainsides.
More than 200 homes already have burned, and an elderly couple was found dead this week outside their charred residence. While power has been restored to all but a few hundred customers in the area, evacuations for close to 5,000 people remain in place.
Crawford said the village is overflowing with donations from surrounding communities.
“So we have plenty of food, we have plenty of clothes, those kinds of things but we still appreciate and need your prayers and your thoughts,” the mayor said during a briefing. “Again, our hearts go out to the family of the deceased, to those that have lost their homes.”
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.
Near where the bodies were recovered, in Gavilan Canyon, the fire reduced homes to ash and metal. An 18-home RV park was completely destroyed.
“I had like 10 people displaced, they lost their homes and everything, including my mom,” said Douglas Siddens, who managed the park.
Siddens said his mother was at work when the fire broke out “with just the clothes she had on and that’s all she has left.”
Everyone got out of the RV park safely before the flames hit but “it’s completely leveled. Like, all that’s left are metal frame rails and steel wheels,” Siddens said.
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 come seeking respite. Horse races at the Ruidoso Downs also draw crowds, as it’s home to one of the sport’s richest quarter-horse competitions. The racing season was expected to start May 27, and horses that board there aren’t in any danger as fire officials use the facility as a staging ground.
Part-time residents have taken to social media over the last few days, pleading with fire officials for updates on certain neighborhoods, hoping their family cabins weren’t among those damaged or destroyed.
The hotlines lit up Friday afternoon as people in the village called in to report more smoke. Fire information officer Mike DeFries said that was because there were flare-ups within the interior of the fire as the flames found pockets of unburned fuel.
While the fire didn’t make any runs at the lines crews had established, he said it was still a tough day for firefighters due to single-digit humidity, warmer temperatures and the wind.
Authorities reiterated that it was still too early to start letting people in to see the damage. They asked for patience as fire crews continued to put out hot spots and tried to build a stronger perimeter around the blaze.
“It’s still an active fire area in there and it’s not a safe place,” DeFries said. “It’s going to require patience. At the same time, every step that we’re taking is designed to suppress this fire and to get people back home as soon as possible.”
New Mexico authorities said they suspect the fire, which has torched more than 9.5 square miles (24 square kilometers) of forest and grass, was sparked by a downed power line and the investigation continued Friday.
Elsewhere in the U.S., large fires were reported this week in Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma.
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.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Thursday that since the start of the year, 18,550 wildfires have burned about 1,250 square miles (3,237 square kilometers). That’s well above the 10-year U.S. average of 12,290 wildfires and 835 square miles (2163 square kilometers) burned for the same period.
Cedar Attanasio contributed reporting from Santa Fe. Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.