1 dead, 1,400 structures lost in New Mexico wildfires that forced thousands to leave

One person is dead and around 1,400 structures have been destroyed in New Mexico wildfires that forced the evacuation of an entire town of more than 7,000 people, officials said Tuesday as the blaze remained active and uncontained.

The South Fork Fire broke out Monday morning on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, and what had been a blaze of around 360 acres was 15,276 acres by Tuesday evening, the New Mexico Forestry Division said. The Salt Fire has burned an estimated 5,557 acres.

Both fires were 0% contained Tuesday, officials said. Their cause is under investigation.

Approximately 1,400 homes and other structures have been lost, the Forestry Division said in an update.

Michael Coleman, communications director for the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, confirmed one death, but the office had no other details to immediately release.

The Village of Ruidoso, a town of around 7,700 just west of the Apache reservation, was ordered to evacuate Monday due to the advancing fire. On Tuesday afternoon, people in the nearby community of Ruidoso Downs were told to leave the area.

“We are deploying every available resource to control these wildfires,” Grisham said in declaring a state of emergency for Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation.

Grisham has also sent the National Guard to assist. An emergency declaration allows for additional funding and other aid.

One couple who fled Ruidoso told NBC affiliate KOB of Albuquerque they left within minutes of getting the evacuation alert. Other areas were also told to evacuate due to the fire.

New Mexico State Forester Laura McCarthy said that there has been "extreme fire behavior" and it started picking up again Tuesday.

"This fire is dangerous and fast-moving," McCarthy said at a news conference. "The winds are strong. They're not quite at the red flag level, but they are close."

Image: (Jacquie Escajeda / AP)
Image: (Jacquie Escajeda / AP)

In Ruidoso, not everyone lives in the mountain town full-time, and around 5,000 people evacuated from there, she said. Most are staying with family and friends, and around 500 were in shelters in Roswell or at a center on the reservation, the state forester said.

Ruidoso Downs has a population or around 2,400 and is east of Ruidoso. It was ordered evacuated after a run by the Salt Fire, officials said.

At least two people were treated for injuries, Grisham said.

The weather is expected to change, but the results could be mixed as far as it affects the fires, McCarthy said. Winds started shifting to come from the west Tuesday in a "back-door cold front" that could arrive Thursday or possibly Wednesday, she said, but it also could bring moisture to the fire region.

"It's both bad news and good news, from a weather perspective," McCarthy said. "It also means that this fire is going to be dynamic, at least until we see what rainfall amounts materialize."

The wind shift raises the possibility that more homes and other structures could be affected, McCarthy said.

The Forestry Division said that "this is a full suppression fire" and that the focus is on building fire lines and protecting homes and property.