New Mexico village calls for prayers as deadly fire rages

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With towering pines and cool mountain breezes, a pocket of southern New Mexico attracts thousands of tourists and horse racing enthusiasts each summer. It is also a community that knows how devastating wildfires can be.

A decade ago, a fire tore through part of the village of Ruidoso, putting the vacation spot on the map with 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 was blackened by a blaze sparked by lightning.

Now Mayor Lynn Crawford is rallying heartbroken residents once again as firefighters tried on Friday to stop wind-whipped flames from making another run through the village and the hundreds of homes and summer cabins that dot the sides of the surrounding mountains.

More than 200 homes have already burned down and an elderly couple were found dead this week outside their charred residence. Although power has been restored to all but a few hundred customers in the area, evacuations of nearly 5,000 people remain in place.

Crawford said the village was overflowing with donations from surrounding communities.

“So we have a lot of food, we have a lot of clothes, that kind of stuff, but we still appreciate and need your prayers and your thoughts,” the mayor said during a briefing. “Once again, our hearts go out to the family of the deceased, to those who lost their homes.”

Authorities have yet to release the names of the deceased couple. Their bodies were found after worried family members contacted police, saying the couple had planned to evacuate on Tuesday when the fire erupted, but were not found later that day .

Near where the bodies were found, in Gavilan Canyon, the fire reduced homes to ash and metal. An 18-home RV park was completely destroyed.

“I had about 10 people displaced, they lost their homes and everything, including my mother,” said Douglas Siddens, who ran the park.

Siddens said her mother was at work when the fire broke out “with just the clothes she was wearing and that’s all she has left.”

Everyone got out of the RV park safely before the flames hit, but “it’s completely flattened.” Like, all that’s left are metal frame rails and steel wheels,” Siddens said.

While many older residents inhabit Ruidoso year-round, the population of around 8,000 swells to around 25,000 during the summer months as Texans and New Mexicans from warmer climes come seeking respite. Horse racing at Ruidoso Downs also draws crowds, as it is home to one of the richest quarter-horse competitions in the sport. The racing season was due to start on May 27, and horses boarding there are in no danger as firefighters use the facility as a staging ground.

Part-time residents have taken to social media over the past few days, pleading with firefighters for updates on certain neighborhoods, hoping their family cabins weren’t among those damaged or destroyed.

Hotlines came on Friday afternoon as village residents called to report more smoke. Fire Information Officer Mike DeFries said it was because there were flare-ups inside the fire as the flames found pockets of unburnt fuel.

Although the blaze did not make any journey on the lines established by the crews, he said it was still a difficult day for firefighters due to single-digit humidity, warmer temperatures and wind.

Authorities reiterated that it was still too early to start letting people in to see the damage. They asked for patience as fire crews continued to extinguish hot spots and attempted to build a stronger perimeter around the blaze.

“It’s still an active fire zone in there and it’s not a safe place,” DeFries said. “It will take patience. At the same time, every step we take is designed to put out this fire and get people home as soon as possible. »

Authorities in New Mexico said they suspect the blaze, which has engulfed more than 9.5 square miles (24 square kilometers) of forest and grass, was started by a downed power line and the investigation is ongoing. continues on Friday.

Elsewhere in the United States, large fires were reported this week in Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma.

Warmer, drier weather, coupled with decades of fire suppression, has contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists say. The problem is exacerbated by a 20-plus-year Western mega-drought that studies have shown is linked to human-induced climate change.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported Thursday that 18,550 wildfires so far this year have burned about 1,250 square miles (3,237 square kilometers). That’s well above the 10-year U.S. average of 12,290 wildfires and 835 square miles (2,163 square kilometers) burned for the same period.

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Cedar Attanasio contributed reporting from Santa Fe. Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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