Authorities have lifted some evacuation orders for a mountain community in southern New Mexico as firefighters worked Saturday to contain a wind-driven blaze that killed two people and destroyed over 200 homes.
The evacuation orders lifted late Friday covered about 60% of the estimated 4,500 people originally ordered to leave their homes since the fire started Tuesday but specific numbers weren’t immediately available, Village of Ruidoso representative Kerry Gladden told The Associated Press on Saturday. Evacuation estimates were previously reported to be around 5,000 people.
“The big story is we’re in a re-population mode,” Gladden said earlier during a media briefing.
Those evacuation orders remaining in effect may be lifted in the coming days, officials said.
Fire incident commander Dave Bales said crews worked to put out hot spots and clear lines along the fire’s perimeter to keep the fire from spreading. The fire has no containment but Bales expressed a mix of satisfaction with work done so far and prospects for coming days.
Weather conditions Saturday appeared favorable with reduced wind and increased humidity, Bales said. “We have lines in. We just want to make sure they hold in that wind,” he said.
The fire and the winds that spread it, downed power lines and knocked out electricity to 18,000 customers. Electricity has been restored to all but a few dozen customers, said Wilson Guinn, a Public Service Co. manager.
But people returning to their homes needed to be cautious and call utility officials if they encounter downed lines, Guinn said.
“We may have missed something,” Guinn said. “Don’t try to touch them, fix them, roll them up, whatever.”
Gladden, the village representative, said residents also need to be aware that the strong winds earlier in the week may have damaged trees that could still fall or lose limbs.
“It’s important that what started this whole event was a significant windstorm,” she said.
Hotlines lit up Friday afternoon as residents reported more smoke, which fire information officer Mike De Fries said was caused by flare-ups within the interior of the fire as flames found pockets of unburned fuel.
Authorities have yet to release the names of the couple who died. Their bodies were found after worried family members contacted police, saying the couple had planned to evacuate Tuesday when the fire exploded but were unaccounted for later that day.
As of Saturday, the fire had burned 9.6 square miles (25 square kilometers) of timber and brush.
Hotter and drier weather coupled with decades of fire suppression have contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists say. The problem is exacerbated by a more than 20-year Western megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change.
Ruidoso a decade ago was the site of the most destructive wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history when more than 240 homes burned and nearly 70 square miles (181 square kilometers) of forest were blackened by a lightning-sparked blaze.
While many older residents call Ruidoso home year-round, the population of about 8,000 people expands to about 25,000 during the summer months as Texans and New Mexicans from hotter climates seek respite.
Fans also flock to Ruidoso Downs, home to one of the sport’s richest quarter-horse competitions. The racing season was expected to start May 27, and horses that board there aren’t in any danger as fire officials use the facility as a staging ground.