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Hundreds of structures destroyed as New Mexico wildfires continue to burn out of control

New Mexico wildfires burn hundreds of structures
Raging New Mexico wildfires burn hundreds of structures 02:51

ROSWELL, N.M. — Fire crews braced for flooding, lightning and cooling weather as they battled a pair of growing fires Thursday that have killed at least two people while tearing through an evacuated mountain village in southern New Mexico, destroying an estimated 1,400 structures.

Residents of the village of Ruidoso fled the larger fire with little notice as it swept into neighborhoods on Tuesday. The National Weather Service reported overcast skies with temperatures in the 60s on Thursday morning at an small airport 15 miles northeast of Ruidoso.

The fires advanced along the mountain headwaters of Eagle Creek and the Rio Ruidoso with 0% containment Thursday, with crews using heavy equipment to build fire lines while water and retardant dropped from the air.

"The big concern right now is flooding," Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford told the KWMW "W105" radio on Thursday. "We got less than two-tenths of an inch of rain yesterday but because of all the burn scar, there's nothing holding it up. We had flooding already over the bridges."

Of the estimated 1,400 structures destroyed or damaged in the larger South Fork Fire, about 500 could be homes, New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham said in a news briefing Wednesday night.

"It's not confirmed, that about 500 homes are in that mix, again making this one of the most devastating fires in New Mexico's history," Grisham said.  

President Biden Thursday issued a disaster declaration for New Mexico because of the fires. The move frees up federal funding to impacted residents and businesses, including grants and loans towards temporary housing and repairs. FEMA will coordinate recovery efforts, the declaration stated. On Wednesday, Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico said that the state's entire congressional delegation has sent a letter to Mr. Biden asking him to issue a major disaster declaration. 

"The president's message to those affected by the fires is that his Administration will be there for them every step of the way, for as long as it takes," a White House official told CBS News in a statement Thursday.  

Wildfires destroyed 1400 structures in village of Ruidoso, New Mexico
Structures that were destroyed in wildfires in the village of Ruidoso, New Mexico, on June 19, 2024. Omar Ornelas/Anadolu via Getty Images

As of Thursday, the South Fork Fire had burned more than 16,300 acres, according to the forestry division, and the Salt Fire had burned just over 7,050 acres. Their combined area is larger than the island of Manhattan. Both had no containment. The causes of both fires remain under investigation. More than 800 firefighting personnel are battling the blazes. 

New Mexico State Police reported that Wednesday that it had confirmed two fire-related deaths in Ruidoso.

One victim, identified as 60-year-old Patrick Pearson, was found dead Tuesday on the side of a road near the Swiss Chalet Motel, state police said in a statement. He had suffered numerous burns. His family told KHOU that Pearson was a guitarist who played regularly at a Ruidoso bar.

"We are at a loss for words, and we are so heartbroken that this happened," his daughter, Christina Alvarez, told KHOU. 

The skeletal remains of a second victim were found in a burned vehicle just before noon Tuesday, state police said. That victim has not yet been identified due to the severity of the burns, and no identification documents were found in the vehicle.

"We are very concerned about the potential loss of life, we know that there are several people still unaccounted for," Grisham said. 

Ruidoso Assistant Fire Chief Ross Coleman gave CBS News a look at some of the destruction, with home after home burned to the ground.

"There were about five or six houses right in here, and our fire chief just lost his house," Coleman said.

Roughly 8,000 residents remain under evacuation orders, including Frank and Connie Loya.

"I don't know whether we are going to have a home," Connie Loya told CBS News.

"We were engulfed in smoke," her husband Frank added. "That scared me to death."

In one area, flames from the South Fork Fire came over a ridge and destroyed a hotel. Cars that were in a parking lot started to melt. 

South Fork Fire near Ruidoso
Smoke rises as a wildfire left behind extensive property and forest damage in Ruidoso, New Mexico, on June 18, 2024. Kaylee Greenlee Beal / REUTERS

Weather patterns shifted Wednesday with moisture arriving from Tropical Storm Alberto in the Gulf of Mexico, said Bladen Breitreiter of the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque. He said rain could lead to dangerous flash flooding in newly burned areas in the mountainous region.

There had already been three confirmed emergency rescues from flash flooding, Grisham said in her briefing Wednesday night, and she expected "there will be more by the time we finish this press update. Stay out of the evacuation areas, heed the flash flood warnings."

Much of the Southwest has been exceedingly dry and hot in recent months. Those conditions, along with strong wind, whipped flames out of control, rapidly advancing the South Fork Fire into Ruidoso. Evacuations extended to hundreds of homes, business, a regional medical center and the Ruidoso Downs horse track.

The governor Tuesday declared a state of emergency for Lincoln County that extended to the neighboring Mescalero Apache Reservation where both fires started, and deployed National Guard troops. That declaration unlocks additional funding and resources to manage the crisis.

South Fork Fire near Ruidoso
Charlie Barron holds his head in his hands after settling in at an emergency shelter where university and local officials set up cots and other Red Cross resources for those under evacuation orders because of the South Fork Fire at Ruidoso, at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell in Roswell, New Mexico, on June 17, 2024. Kaylee Greenlee Beal/REUTERS

Nationwide, wildfires have scorched more than 3,280 square miles this year — a figure higher than the 10-year averages, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 20 wildfires currently burning are considered large and uncontained, including blazes in California and Washington state.

Ruidoso and areas around Santa Fe and Española, New Mexico, have served as the backdrop this year for filming of a movie starring Matthew McConaughey and America Ferrera about the devastating 2018 wildfire in Paradise, California. That fire killed 85 people and nearly erased the community in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

While many older residents call Ruidoso home year-round, the population of around 7,000 people expands to about 25,000 during the warmer months, when people from hotter climates seek the cool of the leafy aspen trees, hiking trails and a chance to go fishing.

Nestled within the Lincoln National Forest, Ruidoso boasts nearby amenities including a casino, golf course and ski resort operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe. Horse races at the Ruidoso Downs also draw crowds as home to one of the sport's richest quarter-horse competitions.

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