Wind whips destructive wildfires in New Mexico, Colorado
By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and PAUL DAVENPORT Associated Press
Firefighters scouted the drought-stricken mountainsides around a New Mexico village on Wednesday as they looked for opportunities to slow a wind-driven wildfire that a day earlier had burned at least 150 homes and other structures while displacing thousands of residents and forcing the evacuation of two schools.
Homes were among the structures that had burned, but officials did not have a count of how many were destroyed in the blaze that torched at least 6.4 square miles (16.6 square kilometers) of forest, brush and grass on the east side of the community of Ruidoso, said Laura Rabon, spokesperson for the Lincoln National Forest.
Rabon announced emergency evacuations of a more densely populated area during a briefing Wednesday afternoon as the fire jumped a road where crews were trying to hold the line. She told people to get in their cars and go.
Late Wednesday, the N.M. State Police confirmed the deaths of an elderly couple who appear to have been trying to escape the fire at $569 Gavilan Canyon Road in Ruidoso.
The winds prevented forced a suspension of the aerial attack on the flames and kept authorities from getting a better estimate of how large the fire has grown. But some planes returned to the air as winds subsided late in the day, and seven airtankers and two helicopters have now been assigned to the fire, Forest Service officials said Wednesday evening.
While the cause of the blaze was under investigation, fire officials and forecasters warned Wednesday that persistent dry and windy conditions had prompted red flag warnings for a wide swath that included almost all of New Mexico, half of Texas and parts of Colorado and the Midwest.
Five new large fires were reported Tuesday, and nearly 1,600 wildland firefighters and support personnel were assigned to large fires in the southwestern, southern and Rocky Mountain areas, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Hotter and drier weather weather coupled with decades of fire suppression have contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists say. And the problem is exacerbated by a more than 20-year Western megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change. The fire season has become year-round given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rain coming later in the fall.
In Ruidoso, officials declared a state of emergency and said school classes were canceled Wednesday as the village — about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of El Paso, Texas — coped with power outages due to down power lines.
The residences that burned were mostly a mix of trailers and single-family homes, and close to 4,000 people were displaced by evacuations that were ordered Tuesday. That number was expected to grow with the latest call for residents to leave.
Village spokeswoman Kerry Gladden said authorities spent part of Wednesday surveying as much damage as possible before the winds kicked up again. Air tankers also were able to drop a few loads of slurry, and more air support was expected Thursday.
“Right now, everybody is just rallying around those who had to be evacuated,” Gladden said. “We’re just trying to reach out to make sure everyone has places to stay.”
Donations were pouring in from other communities in southern New Mexico. State officials said emergency grants have been approved that will provide resources to firefighters and for other emergency efforts.
Ruidoso in 2012 was hit by one of the most destructive wildfires in New Mexico history, when a lightning-sparked blaze destroyed more than 240 homes and burned nearly 70 square miles (181 square kilometers).
Rabon said Wednesday that no precipitation was in the forecast and humidity levels remained in the single digits, which would make stopping the flames more difficult.
“Those extremely dry conditions are not in our favor,” she said.
Another wildfire in the Lincoln National Forest northwest of Ruidoso burned at least 400 acres (1.6 square kilometers) after it was sparked Tuesday by power lines downed by high winds. Crews confirmed Wednesday that 10 structures there were lost.
Elsewhere in New Mexico, wildfires were burning along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque, in mountains northwest of the community of Las Vegas and in grasslands along the Pecos River near the town of Roswell.
In Colorado, crews were battling wind-whipped grass fires that had destroyed two homes and forced temporary evacuations.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Davenport from Phoenix.