At least 1 reported dead in New Mexico as 2 wildfires burn near communities, officials say

At least one person has been reported dead as a result of the fast-growing wildfires still burning in New Mexico, officials said Tuesday.

The state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management told CNN they have received reports of one fatality, but had no additional information.

The wildfires have been tearing across Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation, converging on the village of Ruidoso “like a pair of tongs” and prompting thousands of residents to evacuate, officials say. The neighboring community of Ruidoso Downs also came under an evacuation order Tuesday.

At least two individuals were injured during the wildfires, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a Tuesday evening news conference. They were treated for non-life threatening injuries.

The governor earlier declared a state of emergency in the county and reservation.

Approximately 1,400 structures have been lost in the flames and an estimated 8,000 people have been evacuated, New Mexico fire officials said in a Tuesday update.

The South Fork Fire started Monday morning on Mescalero Apache tribal land and had spread to at least 3,000 acres by nightfall, officials said. It has since exploded in size to more than 15,000 acres as of Tuesday.

A second blaze, the Salt Fire, is also burning on tribal land south of Ruidoso and had scorched more than 5,500 acres as of Tuesday, officials said.

Both fires are acting like “a pair of tongs, and Ruidoso is in the middle,” New Mexico Forestry spokesperson George Ducker said.

Eric Moro and his family were among those forced to flee their home in Ruidoso on Monday. The evacuation was sudden and his family had little time to prepare. He described the sky as orange and said they could barely breathe due to the smoke.

“There’s no going back right now. They are trying to get everybody out and we are not expecting any rain until Friday,” Moro told CNN. “We’re pretty high risk of losing our home.” Moro’s family had just moved into their home in March, and he said he’s unsure of what they will do now.

As of Tuesday evening, Ruidoso Downs – a city of about 2,600 people directly east of the village of Ruidoso – also was under an evacuation order due to the Salt Fire, according to a post on the city’s Facebook page.

“If you are in Ruidoso Downs, please evacuate immediately. Do not try to gather belongings or save your property,” the post reads.

CNN has sought more information from city and Lincoln County officials.

Evacuation orders are also in place in parts of the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation, which sits just south of Ruidoso, including the areas of Snow Springs, Fence Canyon, Whitetail, Chihuahua Well, Fantasy Lane, the Summit area, and Botella Road, the tribe said.

Concerns over weather conditions

State Forester Laura McCarthy, with the New Mexico Forestry Division, expressed concern Tuesday over the change in weather conditions.

“The wind is in the process of shifting. Since the fire started, it had been a steady southwest wind and now we’re seeing a shift with the wind coming from the west,” McCarthy said. “There is potential with this wind coming in from the west to have additional homes impacted.”

Conditions are expected to become more favorable for firefighters over the South Fork fire as the chances of rain increase beginning Wednesday afternoon. More significant rainfall is expected on Thursday and Friday.

The area around Ruidoso could see rainfall totals of 1 to 3 inches and rainfall rates of over an inch per hour, according to the National Weather Service, which could help with fire relief, though heavy rains can also cause flash flooding and debris flows over recent burn scars.

The wildfires’ explosive growth has been fed by very dry air and high temperatures. The conditions prompted the Storm Prediction Center to issue an elevated fire risk warning across most of New Mexico, meaning the wind and low humidity could lead to increased fire threats.

Much of the area has been in extreme drought for nearly a year and southeast New Mexico is the only part of the US considered to be in “exceptional drought.”

A wall of smoke looms of Ruidoso as its residents evacuate on June 17. - Courtesy Jesus Figueroa
A wall of smoke looms of Ruidoso as its residents evacuate on June 17. - Courtesy Jesus Figueroa

Few paths out of Ruidoso

Though Ruidoso is home to only about 8,000 permanent residents, the area attracts a flow of recreational tourists with winding trails, vast parks and wilderness. The village estimates about 60% of its houses are vacation homes.

Rebecca Dennis, who was vacationing in Ruidoso with her family, could smell the smoke Monday morning and proactively packed the family’s bags as the fire seemed to grow closer. When the village was ordered to evacuate, the family jumped in the car to drive back to their home in Oklahoma.

“I can’t imagine the chaos had we not been prepared. I truly feel awful for those residents & everyone. But it was … horrible to see the fires all around us,” Dennis wrote on Facebook.

Few paths out of Ruidoso remained Monday evening after both Highway 48 and Highway 70 at Apache Summit were closed due to the South Fork Fire, the village advised on Facebook: “The only route for evacuation is on Sudderth to Highway 70 and out to Roswell.”

The city of Roswell – about 70 miles east of Ruidoso – raced to accommodate evacuees on Monday, including by clearing hospital space for patients who are being relocated from the Ruidoso hospital and setting up emergency shelters for people and livestock.

Smoke pluming from the South Fork Fire rises above the tree line as the fire progresses from the Mescalero Apache Reservation to the Lincoln National Forest. - Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters
Smoke pluming from the South Fork Fire rises above the tree line as the fire progresses from the Mescalero Apache Reservation to the Lincoln National Forest. - Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters

A shelter is open at Eastern New Mexico University and evacuees with RVs or large animals can also park and board their animals at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds, the city of Roswell announced.

People from all over New Mexico and even Texas were also helping get horses to safety at the Ruidoso Downs Race Track and Casino on Tuesday.

Justyn Brynn, who runs a racehorse rehabilitation center and an equestrian vacation business, said she helped rescue three trailers of horses after the evacuation alert was issued.

“We hope we can go back and get more. We were only able to get 10 out,” Brynn told CNN. “The barn we were working with had 40 or so horses to move.”

Power has been shut off in portions of Ruidoso at the request of first responders, electricity utility PNM said.

“Public safety is a top priority and we do not take this decision lightly but are doing all we can to work in lockstep with our first responders who are helping the communities who are impacted,” PNM said in a Facebook post.

Fires blazing across the Western US

There are 29 active large fires burning across the US, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, with 10 of those reported in California.

The Post Fire in Los Angeles County has burned more than 15,600 acres and is about 31% contained, with more than 1,600 personnel assigned to fight the fire.

Farther north in the state, the Sites Fire in Colusa County has grown to 10,000 acres and is zero percent contained and the Point Fire in Sonoma County has burned more than 1,200 acres and is about 20% contained.

The Aero Fire has grown to 5,249 acres in Calaveras County, with 20% containment and 3,690 structures threatened. The fires have forced evacuations in some surrounding areas.

Cal Fire Capt. Marco Rodriguez said firefighters are facing winds of 50 to 60 mph, and the fire threat may get worse with expected weekend heat.

So far this year, nearly 19,000 wildfires have burned almost 2,100,000 acres nationwide, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s well more than the 10-year annual average of acres burned to date – which is around 1,400,000.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller and CNN’s Melissa Alonso, Dave Alsup, Amanda Jackson, Robert Shackelford, Ed Lavandera, Ashley Killough and Sharif Paget contributed to this report.

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