RUIDOSO, N.M. – Two wildfires threatening towns and villages in south-central New Mexico continued to grow Wednesday, leaving a trail of damage and forcing thousands of residents to flee.

The South Fork and Salt fires have scorched a combined 20,000 acres of tribal and government lands surrounding the village of Ruidoso in south-central New Mexico, and both remain at 0% containment.

Some 1,400 structures have been burned, and several more remain threatened as the weather begins to take a turn toward the erratic, officials said.

“Today, we have two devastating, enormous fires,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Luan Grisham said during a news conference Tuesday, just hours after she declared a state of emergency.

Firefighters reported treating two people for non-life-threatning injuries during the evacuations, Grisham said during the conference, adding that her office did not have any confirmed reports of other injuries or deaths. 

Seven patients were evacuated from the town hospital, and 17 more residents were brought to safety from an assisted living facility, Grisham said. 

The larger South Fork fire was discovered around 9 a.m. Monday and quickly grew during the afternoon with what New Mexico Forestry officials described as “extreme fire behavior” as gusty winds reaching 20-30 mph and low humidity fueled the flames.

USDA Forest Service firefighters return from fighting the South Fork Fire in Ruidoso, New Mexico on June 17, 2024. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal
Smoke rises above the tree line as the wildfire progresses from the from the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation to the Lincoln National Forest. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal

The fire began encroaching on Ruidoso late Monday evening, prompting officials to urge immediate evacuation of the entire village and surrounding area.

“Please do not try to gather belongings or protect your home,” village officials urged on social media. “GO NOW.”

Emergency officials set up shelters in nearby Roswell and offered state fairgrounds space to house evacuated livestock. 

People arrive at an emergency shelter at at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal

As of Tuesday evening, the wildfire had blackened 15,276 acres, according to city officials. More than 800 firefighters and first responders are now on the scene. 

The New Mexico National Guard sent more than 40 Army and Air National Guardsmen to assist state police with traffic checkpoints.  

“Traveling in and around that eastern and southern part of the state is not only not allowable with road closures, but it’s discouraged even when roads are open,” Grisham said. 

A residence destroyed by the South Fork fire in Alto on June 19, 2024. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
A car burned by the wildfire in Alto. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Nearby Salt Fire prompts its own evacuation

Firefighters have their hands full not only with the South Fork fire but also with the Salt Fire burning nearby on the Mescalero Reservation. 

That fire reached over 5,500 acres on Tuesday evening and forced evacuations of residents in the area. 

Smoke from the South Fork and Salt fires seen from the town of Orogrande on June 18, 2024. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

“The fire is now making a significant run towards Ruidoso Downs, posing an imminent threat to the area,” fire officials said. 

‘The weather is dynamic right now’

While the weather has generally been hot, dry and windy for firefighters so far, an approaching backdoor cold front with the potential for severe weather is set to bring fresh challenges to fighting the blaze.

“The weather is dynamic right now,” Grisham said. “The wind, as we speak, is in the process of shifting. Since the fire started, it had been a steady southwest wind.” 

Smoke rising from the forest as police officers turn drivers away near Ruidoso. Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal via AP

But now forecasters expect a wind shift to the southeast with gusts of 45 mph Tuesday night. 

“The wind shift is a little concerning,” New Mexico State Forester Laura McCarthy said. “There is potential with this wind … to have additional homes impacted until this backdoor front moves through and shifts to moving back in the other direction.”

And while the front may bring some badly needed rain, it may be too much rain too fast for some areas. Flash Flood Watches are now in effect for the areas recently burned by the fires. 

An air tanker dropping fire retardent in Ruidoso on June 18, 2024. Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal via AP

“Heavy rainfall could trigger flash flooding of low-lying areas, urbanized street flooding, and debris flows in and near recent wildfire burn scars,” National Weather Service meteorologists in Albuquerque warned. 

NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has placed the region in a Level 1 out of 5 severe weather risk for storms that could also bring isolated gusts to 60 mph or higher and large hail.

“So it’s both bad news and good news from a weather perspective,” Grisham said. “It also means that this fire is going to be dynamic, at least until we see what rainfall amounts materialize and what the effect of any rainfall is at modifying and decreasing the fire behavior.”

In the meantime, Grisham marveled at how the local community and the state have rallied together to help those in need.

“The men and women who put their lives on the line, including state police, firefighters, the (National) Guard, men, women and their families are doing amazing work,” she said. “And the number of New Mexicans who on their own are helping move livestock and resources and are offering up their own homes for shelter, shows me once again the generosity and the compassion of the people in this state.”

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