Austin Fisher

(Source NM) Two large fires in southeastern New Mexico have damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings and taken at least one person’s life, according to the New Mexico governor’s office.

The South Fork Fire and Salt Fire started on Monday, with the South Fork Fire discovered around 9 a.m. and the Salt Fire around 2 p.m. They originated in or near the Mescalero Apache Reservation and are threatening homes and lives in Ruidoso, Ruidoso Downs and areas nearby.

As of Tuesday evening, the fires totaled more than 20,000 acres and were 0% contained, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said.

“These are very serious fires,” the governor told reporters at a news conference in Santa Fe.

Shortly after the news conference, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said one person has died as a result of the fire. They said the information came from “official channels” but could not provide any more information.

Lujan Grisham said authorities have been contacted by people who are looking for their family members. She encouraged people searching for lost loved ones to call the 24/7 hotline at (833) NMFIRE6 or (833) 663-4736.

“We do want to hear from you, we do want to support you,” she said. “We send the (National) Guard or the police to make those contacts.”

Lujan Grisham could not say how many people are missing, trapped, stuck or otherwise unable to leave along the established evacuation routes. She said she was personally aware of two people who needed to be located.

“If you believe that you’ve got a loved one that is in jeopardy, we want to know about it,” Lujan Grisham said. “We want to do everything we can to locate them.”

Five-hundred structures and homes were destroyed or damaged as of Tuesday afternoon, Lujan Grisham said.

“We don’t want people informally in those areas, trying to garner information out of context, and putting their own lives at risk,” Lujan Grisham said. “When you do that, you potentially put other lives at risk.”

Five-thousand people have fled from Ruidoso on Monday evening, with many staying with friends and family, Lujan Grisham said.

More than 500 people are staying in 10 different shelters and service centers mostly in Roswell, along with the Inn of the Mountain Gods, Lujan Grisham said.

Crews also rescued seven patients from the Lincoln County Medical Center, she said.

Another 15 people living at the Good Life Senior Living and Memory Care Ruidoso were taken to the Ruidoso Convention Center, according to a spokesperson for the New Mexico Department of Health. A dozen of them were picked up by family, and staff accompanied the remaining three who were evacuated to Artesia, the spokesperson said.

Then on Tuesday, the city of Ruidoso Downs was ordered to evacuate.

“The men and women who put their lives on the line including State Police, firefighters, the Guard’s men and women and their families, are doing amazing work,” Lujan Grisham said. “And the number of New Mexicans who — on their own — are helping with 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.”

Lujan Grisham said she is expecting requests for federal emergency disaster declarations to be delivered to the federal government within the next 24 hours. That will allow federal disaster relief resources, potentially including housing, individual aid and support for local governments into New Mexico.

‘Extreme fire behavior,’ state forester says

State Forester Laura McCarthy said the fire is dangerous and moving fast.

“The fire behavior that we saw yesterday and that is picking up now this afternoon is extreme fire behavior,” McCarthy said.

On Tuesday afternoon, both fires were marching steadily to the east, but around 2 p.m. fire perimeters maps produced by the National Interagency Fire Center show a slight shift toward the west.

The weather has allowed pilots to work with bulldozers and hotshot crews on the ground to build fire lines, and find and put out any spot fires from blown embers before they take hold, McCarthy said.

She said winds and other conditions have not reached “Red Flag” level, which means elevated risk of fire due to low humidity, dry conditions and high winds. But they are close.

She said the local weather is dynamic, with winds shifting from the southwest to the west because of a cold front that will bring moisture either on Wednesday or Thursday. Any rainfall could change the fire’s behavior, McCarthy said.

Eight hundred people from 17 different federal and state agencies are responding to the fire, Lujan Grisham said, along with 13 wildfire hotshot crews and several other specialist fire teams.

The causes of both fires are still to be determined, the governor said.

Investigators haven’t ruled out whether the blazes stemmed from natural or human causes, she said, noting that there were reports of lightning. Any number of causes are possible, she said, including human activity.

She cautioned the public against speculating about the cause and instead focus on how to help those affected while the investigation proceeds. Six investigators, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, are on the case, McCarthy said.