Escape from killer New Mexico wildfire was 'absolute sheer terror,’ says woman who fled the flames

Belinda Bukovitz was jolted into action by the sound of police outside her home shouting through a loudspeaker: “Go now, go now, go now!” Realizing this was not like other wildfires that had threatened her mountain village before, she, her husband, son and two cats bundled into three separate cars and fled.

The smoke was at the end of the street when they tore out of the driveway. Panic set in as the usually sleepy two-lane streets of Ruidoso became gridlocked, with cars inching along bumper to bumper, sometimes taking as long as an hour to go a single mile. As they crept forward, smoke from one fire was ahead and smoke from another behind. Bukovitz had no idea where the flames were.

“It was absolute sheer terror, like I thought we were going to die,” she said, voice cracking. “I remember at one point thinking, the river’s over to my right, and I thought my son was about probably five cars behind me. I thought I will get out and go get him, and I will just get in that water. I don’t know if that would help, but that was my plan because I just I didn’t know how fast it was coming.”

The South Fork and Salt fires that raged in south-central New Mexico this week prompted thousands of people like Bukovitz to flee for their lives and destroyed or damaged an estimated 1,400 structures — about half of them homes, according to Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford.

Officials were still taking stock on Friday as firefighters took advantage of rain and cool temperatures to keep the blazes from growing, but large swaths of some neighborhoods were lost. At least two people died.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham were to tour the disaster area Saturday. A federal disaster declaration has cleared the way for more resources to help start recovery as crews continue to corral the flames.

Some residents smelled smoke when they woke up Monday and poured their first cup of coffee. They didn’t think much of it, assuming the source had to be far off. Some went to work, others walked their dogs.

A few miles away, an elite team of firefighters dubbed the Smokey Bear Hot Shots were on the scene, and a large air tanker and helicopter were ordered to drop water and slurry on flames, which at the time covered just a few acres. But as fire behavior experts would later explain, there was nothing that was going to slow this down — it had been too hot and too dry in the months leading up to this day.

Within a few short hours, the majestic views of Sierra Blanca Peak were blotted out as huge plumes of smoke rose from the forested hills. The sun disappeared, the sky turned orange and flames became visible from vantage points around Ruidoso.

Authorities ordered the first residents in the canyons on the outskirts to leave around midday. Others began packing their belongings as conditions worsened.

Then, around dinnertime, the order came via social media for the entire village of about 8,000, plus the many tourists who visit in summer, to head out: “Immediate mandatory ‘Go’ evacuation for the village of Ruidoso — Go now!!”

Pam Bonner was among those to leave early in the day, only to find herself in a line of vehicles that stretched for about a mile. She could see other cars stacking up behind as the glowing horizon became more intense.

“This was unlike anything. The sky was black and orange, and the clouds were like mushroom clouds,” she said. “It was just like a horror movie. It really was.”

With flames and smoke forcing road closures, there were limited options for getting out. Power had been turned off as a precaution, and communication became a challenge as cell service dropped out. Vehicles were funneled toward evacuation shelters in Roswell, Alamogordo and elsewhere.

Patrick Pearson, who recently had surgery after breaking his leg, was waiting at the Swiss Chalet Inn for a friend to pick him up. Others fleeing their homes asked if he needed a ride, but he thought his friend would arrive and remained — unaware that she had been stopped at numerous roadblocks and was unable to call to let him know. At a final checkpoint, the friend asked people to go get Pearson, but the smoke was too thick by then.

Authorities found Pearson's body Tuesday in the inn’s parking lot, where his family believes he collapsed after being overcome by smoke. Some of his belongings were at the front entrance. Just a day earlier, Pearson’s children had wished him a happy Father's Day and told him they loved him, his daughter Hilary Mallak said.

A talented musician and good cook, the 60-year-old Pearson loved Ruidoso and loved making people happy, Mallak said.

“Really what’s so heartbreaking about it is knowing, thinking that your family member burned to death alone,” she said. “But luckily I think he was already gone with just the smoke. So it was quick.”

Authorities also found the unidentified skeletal remains of one other person inside a charred car.

The wildfires were fueled by the exceedingly dry and hot conditions that have been present in much of the Southwest in recent months, and exacerbated by strong winds that whipped the flames out of control and into Ruidoso.

Tom Bird, a forecaster with the National Weather Service who was assigned to the fire, said this area of New Mexico has received between a quarter and half the average precipitation it usually gets and this marks the peak of fire season in the Sacramento Mountains.

“You can see with great frequency there's a lot of hot, dry, windy days leading up to right here, this really high peak,” he said, pointing to a chart showing unfavorable conditions on the day the fires started.

“In fact, it was the worst that we’ve seen over the last month,” Bird said.

Nationwide, the total square mileage of terrain that has been burned so far this year is much greater than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. There are more than two dozen large fires currently burning in 10 states, from Alaska to Florida.

In Ruidoso, it could take until next week before authorities begin letting people return home. That’s because some firefighting crews have been working their way through neighborhoods to address any pockets of unburned fuel that might flare up.

Mary Ann Russ is taking it one day at a time, creating a small list each day of things she needs to get done now that she and her husband lost their home of 24 years.

They were out of town the day the fires broke out. Her father-in-law evacuated with the help of neighbors, but all their belongings are gone. Prescription medications. Clothing. Russ' car. The flag from her mother’s military funeral. Her father’s Army keepsakes. Her son’s baby pictures.

“You know, I’ll just never have them back, that’s all,” she said. “And it’s heavy, man. It’s heavy.”

For now Russ and her neighbors are staying in Roswell, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) away. Until they can return, they will be sharing dinners and leaning on each other.

“We just got to keep putting one foot in front of the other,” she said.