Biden finally declares NM fire disaster as rain helps fight blazes

Over 1,000 firefighters in New Mexico seized a weather break on Thursday to gain control over two wildfires that have claimed two lives, destroyed hundreds of homes, and forced thousands to evacuate.

Joe Biden finally issued a disaster declaration for southern New Mexico, providing additional funding and resources to help contain the fires almost a week since the South Fork Fire was discovered. Crews benefited from a storm system that brought rain, hail, and cooler temperatures to Ruidoso and surrounding areas.

“The fire has lost momentum,” said Arthur Gonzales, the fire behavior analyst for the federal attack team, during a community meeting in Alamogordo on Thursday night. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s really changed that fire behavior,” he added, noting that minimal growth is expected in the coming days.

Despite this temporary reprieve, firefighters remain cautious due to the dry, tinderbox conditions that initially fueled the fires. In a few days, the fires have scorched an area half the size of Washington, D.C.

Evacuation orders are likely to remain in place for several days as crews work to extinguish hot spots around Ruidoso, and law enforcement continues to patrol to prevent looting. While some reports suggested the fires were human-caused, federal incident commander Dave Gessar stated that the causes remain “undetermined” and are under investigation.

The disaster declaration will support recovery efforts, including temporary housing, low-cost loans for uninsured property, and other emergency work in Lincoln County and on Mescalero Apache Tribe lands.

Residents fled the larger of the two fires with little notice as it swept through neighborhoods on Monday. More evacuations occurred on Tuesday as the fire expanded, engulfing homes among the ponderosa pines.

An estimated 1,400 structures have been destroyed or damaged, with Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford estimating that about half were homes. “These are things that are burnt to the foundations and all the trees around it,” he said. “It’s devastating.”

Authorities reported that a 60-year-old man who died was found near the Swiss Chalet Inn in Ruidoso. His family had arranged for a ride, but friends could not reach him due to blocked roads. He appeared to have been overcome by the fire while trying to escape on foot. On Wednesday, officers found the skeletal remains of another person in the driver’s seat of a burned vehicle.

Some residents have been documenting the damage via social media. In Ruidoso and neighboring Alto, entire neighborhoods have been reduced to ash, with only fireplaces remaining from homes.

“I am speechless. I’m so sorry everyone,” said Logan Fle as he drove through the affected areas.

The Southwest has experienced exceptionally dry and hot conditions in recent months, which, combined with strong winds, rapidly spread the South Fork Fire into Ruidoso. Evacuations included hundreds of homes, businesses, a regional medical center, and the Ruidoso Downs horse track.

Nationwide, wildfires have burned over 3,344 square miles (8,660 square kilometers) this year, surpassing the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nearly 20 large, uncontained wildfires are burning across California, Arizona, Colorado, Washington state, and other areas.


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