New Mexico governor declares state of emergency due to wildfires

Jun 18, 2024, 3:15 PM

Smoke fills the sky from the South Fork Fire in Ruidoso, New Mexico, on June 17. (Courtesy Jesus Fi...

Smoke fills the sky from the South Fork Fire in Ruidoso, New Mexico, on June 17. (Courtesy Jesus Figueroa via CNN Newsource)

(Courtesy Jesus Figueroa via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation as two wildfires continue to burn across the southern part of the state.

The fast-growing fires are tearing across the tribal reservation and converging on a village “like a pair of tongs,” prompting thousands of residents to evacuate, officials say. Tuesday’s executive order authorizes additional funding and resources for the state’s homeland security and emergency management department.

‘A wall of smoke’

A wall of smoke filled the sky over the village of Ruidoso on Monday evening as a line of cars snaked out of the community. An estimated 5,000 residents were ordered to evacuate the village area due to the approaching South Fork Fire, New Mexico Forestry spokesperson George Ducker told CNN.

The South Fork Fire started Monday morning on Mescalero Apache tribal land and had spread to at least 3,000 acres by nightfall, Ducker said. It exploded in size overnight, authorities said. The fire burned 13,921 acres with zero percent containment, the Village of Ruidoso said early Tuesday.

Around 500 structures have already been impacted by fire near Ruidoso, according to a Tuesday social media post from the village government.

“Currently fire behavior is creeping, but a concern today is increased winds that could push the fire further to the east and the northeast,” it said on Facebook.

Another fire

A second blaze, the Salt Fire, is also burning on tribal land south of Ruidoso and had scorched 2,800 acres by early Tuesday.

Both fires are acting like “a pair of tongs, and Ruidoso is in the middle,” Ducker said.

Eric Moro and his family fled their home in Ruidoso on Monday. The evacuation was sudden and his family had little time to prepare. He described the sky as orange and said they could barely breathe due to the smoke.

“Right now, the fires are probably about 1,200 meters from our home – last I checked. So, we’re pretty high risk of losing our home,” Moro told CNN.

He is unsure of what his family will do now. They had just moved into their home in March but may stay with relatives in Mexico.

“There’s no going back right now. They are trying to get everybody out and we are not expecting any rain until Friday,” Moro said.


Evacuation orders are also in place in parts of the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation, which sits just south of Ruidoso, including the areas of Snow Springs, Fence Canyon, Whitetail, Chihuahua Well, Fantasy Lane, the Summit area, and Botella Road, the tribe said.

First responders are also grappling with phone outages affecting a communications center, potentially hindering the ability to respond to 911 calls, New Mexico State Police said.

Much of the area has been in extreme drought for nearly a year and southeast New Mexico is the only part of the US considered to be in “exceptional drought.” The effects of extreme drought can include heightened fire danger, dying vegetation and the drying up of large rivers ­such as the Rio Grande.

Multiple fires are also blazing across the West, including a 15,000-acre fire in Los Angeles County.

Though Ruidoso is home to only about 8,000 permanent residents, the area attracts a flow of recreational tourists with winding trails, vast parks and wilderness. The village estimates about 60% of its houses are vacation homes.

The smell of smoke

Rebecca Dennis, who was vacationing in Ruidoso with her family, could smell the smoke Monday morning and proactively packed the family’s bags as the fire seemed to grow closer. When the village was ordered to evacuate, the family jumped in the car to drive back to their home in Oklahoma.

“I can’t imagine the chaos had we not been prepared. I truly feel awful for those residents & everyone. But it was … horrible to see the fires all around us,” Dennis wrote on Facebook.

Few paths out of Ruidoso remained Monday evening after both Highway 48 and Highway 70 at Apache Summit were closed due to the South Fork Fire, the village advised on Facebook: “The only route for evacuation is on Sudderth to Highway 70 and out to Roswell.”

The city of Roswell – about 70 miles east of Ruidoso – raced to accommodate evacuees on Monday, including by clearing hospital space for patients who are being relocated from the Ruidoso hospital and setting up emergency shelters for people and livestock.

Opening of shelters

A shelter is open at Eastern New Mexico University and evacuees with RVs or large animals can also park and board their animals at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds, the city of Roswell announced.

Anthony Torres, the lead pastor at Mountain View Church, told CNN they can shelter 30 to 50 people in need. He said they have water, supplies, air conditioning and a shower trailer.

Power has been shut off in portions of Ruidoso at the request of first responders, electricity utility PNM said. As of Monday night, nearly 800 homes and businesses were impacted, the utility said.

“Public safety is a top priority and we do not take this decision lightly but are doing all we can to work in lockstep with our first responders who are helping the communities who are impacted,” PNM said in a Facebook post.

The wildfires’ explosive growth has been fed by very dry air and high temperatures. The conditions prompted the Storm Prediction Center to issue an elevated fire risk warning across most of New Mexico, meaning the wind and low humidity could lead to increased fire threats.

Fires blazing across the Western US

There are 29 active large fires burning across the US, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, with 10 of those reported in California.

The Post Fire in Los Angeles County has burned more than 15,000 acres and is about 24% contained, with more than 1,600 personnel assigned to fight the fire.

Farther north in the state, the Sites Fire in Colusa County has grown to 10,000 acres and is zero percent contained and the Point Fire in Sonoma County has burned more than 1,200 acres and is about 20% contained.

The Aero Fire has grown to 5,249 acres in Calaveras County, with 20% containment and 3,690 structures threatened. The fires have forced evacuations in some surrounding areas.

Cal Fire Capt. Marco Rodriguez said firefighters are facing winds of 50 to 60 mph. Rodriguez said the fire threat may get worse with expected weekend heat.

“Winds always cause challenges and concerns for firefighting. That’s the biggest influencing factor on fire behavior,” Cal Fire Capt. Robert Foxworthy told CNN on Monday.

As humans continue to drive climate change with fossil fuel pollution, scientists warn that rapidly-spreading, destructive wildfires will become more frequent, in part due to hotter temperatures and pervasive drought conditions.

So far this year, nearly 19,000 wildfires have burned almost 2,100,000 acres nationwide, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s well more than the 10-year annual average of acres burned to date – which is around 1,400,000.

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New Mexico governor declares state of emergency due to wildfires