At least 2 dead, over 1,400 structures burned as New Mexico wildfires rage

Two wildfires threatening towns and villages in south-central New Mexico continued to grow out-of-control Wednesday, leaving a trail of damage and forcing thousands of residents to flee. It has claimed two lives so far and injured two others.

The South Fork and Salt fires have killed two people, according to the New Mexico State Police. Officers found 60-year-old Patrick Pearson dead on the side of the road near his home, the burned Swiss Chalet Inn, midday on Tuesday.

"He had sustained numerous burns from the fire, where he succumbed to his injuries," a lieutenant said.

A second victim was also found Tuesday in Ruidoso. The state police said that the body was burned to skeletal remains in the front seat of a car.

The wildfires have scorched more than a combined 23,000 acres of tribal and government lands surrounding the village of Ruidoso in south-central New Mexico and the Mescalero Apache Reserve, 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

To add insult to injury, a severe storm dumped heavy rain and baseball-sized hail over the burn scar Wednesday. The National Weather Service office in Albuquerque issued a Flash Flood Emergency for Ruidoso and Alto where radar estimated that 2.5 inches of rain fell in 30 minutes.

In total, burned areas have seen 5-6 inches of rain with another inch or more expected through Wednesday evening. Officials issued an evacuation for flooding. Those same areas could see up to an additional 2.5 inches. Winds have been gusting 20-30 mph.

The latest information on the South Fork Fire. (FOX Weather)

Firefighters reported treating two people for non-life-threatening injuries during the evacuations, Grisham said during the conference.

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 about 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. 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."


Still image taken from video showing smoke billowing from wildfires in the village of Ruidoso on Monday.  (Pamela Bonner via Storyful)

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

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. 


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. 

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

Storyful cotntributed to this report. 

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