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New Mexico wildfire claims second life, while rain offers hope of relief

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ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) — Heavy rain and hail fell Wednesday around an evacuated village in New Mexico threatened by wildfires that have killed at least two people and damaged more than 1,400 structures, offering the hope of some assistance for firefighters but adding the threat of high winds and flash floods.

Air tankers dropped water and red retardant earlier on the pair of fires growing in a mountainous part of the state where earlier in the week residents of the village of Ruidoso were forced to flee the larger of the two blazes with little notice.

New Mexico State Police spokesman Wilson Silver said Wednesday that officers discovered the skeletal remains of an unidentified second person in the driver seat of a burned vehicle. It’s the second confirmed death in the blazes. The first fire victim was a badly burned 60-year-old man found by the side of the road near the popular Swiss Chalet Inn in Ruidoso.

Weather patterns were shifting Wednesday with moisture arriving from the Gulf of Mexico, said Bladen Breitreiter of the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque.

“It will be a challenging situation going into the late afternoon and evening,” said Breitreiter, who has been an incident meteorologist at past wildfires. “The potential for scattered to isolated thunderstorms could help, but it depends on where they hit. If the rain misses the fires, downward winds could cause problems for firefighters on the ground.”

He said rain could also lead to dangerous flash flooding in newly burned areas.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the rain and hail that started around Ruidoso on Wednesday afternoon was falling on the fires themselves, or if it would slow their progress. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the area until later Wednesday evening.

The two fires remained at 0% containment Wednesday afternoon as crews used heavy equipment to build fire lines while water and retardant was dropped from the air, authorities said.

Officials said hundreds of firefighters were on the scene and watching to stop any spot fires that could flare up. More personnel from departments from around the region were continuing to arrive.

Ruidoso and much of the Southwest has been exceedingly dry and hot this spring. Those conditions, along with strong wind, whipped flames out of control Monday and Tuesday, rapidly advancing the South Fork Fire into the village. Along with homes and businesses, a regional medical center and the Ruidoso Downs horse track were evacuated.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office confirmed one fatality as a result of the fire but said it had no further details.

About 1,400 structures have been destroyed or damaged, but it’s unclear how many were homes. A flyover to provide more accurate mapping and a better assessment of damage is being organized, Lujan Grisham said.

Ardis Holder left Ruidoso with her two young daughters, her gas tank nearly on empty as she prayed that they’d get out safely. She was sure the house she rented in the village she grew up in is gone, based on the maps she’d seen.

“We were already seeing where all the fire hit, it’s everywhere,” she said late Tuesday from a shelter in nearby Roswell. “If there’s something standing, that’s awesome. But, if not, we were prepared for the worst.”

Lujan Grisham on Wednesday requested a major disaster declaration from President Joe Biden’s administration that would free up federal funding for immediate housing and other assistance for the people affected.

“New Mexico has faced disaster before, but the scale of this emergency requires immediate federal intervention,” she said.

The day before, she declared a county-wide state of emergency 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.

Nationwide, wildfires have scorched more than 3,280 square miles (8,495 square kilometers) 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.

Lujan Grisham said the two southern New Mexico wildfires together have consumed more than 31 square miles (80 square kilometers). The exact causes of the blazes haven’t been determined, but the Southwest Coordination Center listed them as human-caused.

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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Lee reported from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Sarah Brumfield in Washington, D.C.; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; Anita Snow in Phoenix; Rio Yamat and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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AP Ruidoso wildfires page: https://apnews.com/hub/ruidoso

By MORGAN LEE and ANDRÉS LEIGHTON
Associated Press

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