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FBI seeks suspects in 2 New Mexico wildfires that killed 2 people, damaged hundreds of buildings

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RUIDOSO, N.M. (AP) — Full-time residents of Ruidoso will be allowed to return to their village Monday morning as federal authorities seek to prosecute whoever started a pair of New Mexico wildfires that killed two people and destroyed or damaged more than 1,400 structures.

The FBI said it is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrests and convictions of those responsible for the South Fork Fire and Salt Fire in southern New Mexico, which forced thousands to flee.

The federal agency also said it was seeking public assistance in identifying the cause of the fires discovered June 17 near the village of Ruidoso.

But the notice also pointedly suggested human hands were to blame, saying the reward was for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “the person or persons responsible for starting the fires.

Lincoln County Manager Randall Camp said at a news conference Saturday that “we are approaching a thousand homes lost” in the fires.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for parts of southern New Mexico on Thursday. The move freed up funding and more resources to help with recovery efforts including temporary housing, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property and other emergency work in Lincoln County and on lands belonging to the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

The National Interagency Fire Center said the South Fork Fire, which reached 26 square miles (67 square kilometers), was 31% contained Sunday. It said the Salt Fire that has spread over 12 square miles (31 square kilometers) was now 7% contained.

Both fires had been at zero containment Friday. Full containment isn’t expected until July 15, according to fire officials.

More than 1,100 firefighters continued to fight the flames in steep and rocky terrain Sunday.

The South Fork and Salt fires are still burning on both sides of Ruidoso and a threat of flash floods still looms over the village.

Authorities said downed power lines, damaged water, sewer and gas lines plus flooding in burn scars continued to pose risks to firefighters and the public.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham toured some of the disaster area Saturday with Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Deanne Criswell.

Even with federal and state assistance on the table, Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford estimates it could take at least five years for the area to fully recover.

Ruidoso officials said those wanting to return home Monday must bring drinking water and at least a week’s worth of food. They warned residents that homes may be without gas, electricity or water.