29 unaccounted for as residents of fire-ravaged New Mexico town allowed to return


Residents of the New Mexico town of Ruidoso, which was totally evacuated last week in advance of two fast-moving wildfires, were allowed back Monday to see whether their homes are still standing.

New Mexico State Police have confirmed two fire-related deaths in the South Fork and Salt fires, “with potential additional fatalities identified,” the town has said.

Mayor Lynn Crawford said in a weekly radio program Monday that 29 people are unaccounted-for.

Image: Houses destroyed by the South Fork Fire (Andres Leighton / AP)
Image: Houses destroyed by the South Fork Fire (Andres Leighton / AP)

Searchers were going into “exclusion zones," areas where homes have burned and which have been badly damaged, and were “looking for individuals,” Crawford said.

“That means there is so severe damage that there are the potential to have victims in there, that we’re looking for,” said Crawford, the mayor of the community of around 7,700. “We’re still looking for 29 people.”

Search-and-rescue teams are using dogs, and they are going “property to property,” he said.

Crawford said those who live in those exclusion zones and who may be among the 29 considered missing but are unaware of that fact are encouraged to call the emergency operations center "and just say you're checking in."

The South Fork and Salt fires broke out June 17 on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, with the South Fork Fire burning east toward and into Ruidoso and to the north of the town.

The Salt Fire burned east and south of Ruidoso, prompting the evacuation of nearby Ruidoso Downs, a community of around 2,600.

By Monday the South Fork Fire had burned around 17,551 acres and was 37% contained, the New Mexico Forestry Division said. The Salt Fire has burned about 7,816 acres and was 7% contained.

Image: Smoke rises from fires in Ruidoso, N.M.,  (Pam Bonner via AP)
Image: Smoke rises from fires in Ruidoso, N.M., (Pam Bonner via AP)

About 1,400 structures have been damaged. Among them are believed to be around 500 homes that have been destroyed, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said last week.

Among those preparing to enter the Ruidoso area but unsure of what they would find was David Solas.

“I’m kind of scared to go back and just wondering what it’s going to look like,” Solas told NBC affiliate KOB of Albuquerque.

A change in the weather has helped firefighters battle the flames, although precipitation did cause a flooding risk. The state Forestry Division said in an update that the fire behavior "has reduced to smoldering and creeping in heavy duff and dead/down fuels" but warned it can increase in pockets with warmer weather.

Crawford, the Ruidoso mayor, asked those with second homes in the community to wait a few days and to allow those who live there full-time to go in first as a courtesy.

“We have people, this is their primary home. That was their home. Their children, you know, this was their school,” Crawford said. “And so let those people get in here first, because we’re going to be filling up soon.”

A cause of the fires is under investigation. The FBI has announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for the fires.

Crawford said officials wanted to ensure that accurate information is being conveyed.

“Sometimes in a rush to get out information you can make mistakes. For example, we’re at two fatalities, not three — and we were told three," Crawford said. “That’s great news, and we want to keep it at two.”