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Tuesday ends with fires still uncontained

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Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative

Two fires threatening the community of Ruidoso expanded Tuesday, June 18, affecting at least 500 structures and prompting a second evacuation order, this time for the neighboring City of Ruidoso Downs.

The South Fork Fire burning to the west and north of the village grew to nearly 15,300 acres by mid-afternoon, while the Salt Fire, burning to the south, totaled about 5,500 acres. Both were 0 percent contained by 8 p.m. Tuesday. KOB-TV and Source New Mexico reported at least one death has resulted from the fires.

Shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday, authorities announced a second evacuation order in as many days, urging residents of the City of Ruidoso Downs to evacuate immediately due to the Salt Fire “making a run” toward the community. An evacuation order Monday applied only to a portion of Ruidoso Downs, as well as to Ruidoso proper and surrounding neighborhoods, a village official said.

The only available evacuation route for the 2,600-person community of Ruidoso Downs was U.S. Hwy. 70 east toward Roswell.

State police blocked all highways leading to Ruidoso due to the high risks of traveling to the area.

Fire crews from multiple agencies were fighting the blazes using both ground and air equipment.

Since its start on Monday morning, the larger South Fork Fire has encroached upon homes and businesses in Ruidoso and Alto, a short drive to the north.

Dramatic footage of the Alto Ski Shop ablaze at night was circulating on social media Tuesday. Also perishing in the fire was the Swiss Chalet Inn, a well-known hotel along Mechem Drive that was built in 1962.

It was rumored the Albertsons grocery store, also located on Mechem Drive, had burned, but a company spokesperson said that was not the case – at least through late afternoon Tuesday. The store is closed, however, and will remain so until it’s safe for employees to return.

Residents and onlookers followed fire progress on an alert app known as Watch Duty. At least according to the app, much of the Upper Canyon, a heavily wooded area of Ruidoso, appeared to still be standing.

Officials declined to comment about what structures had or hadn’t survived the fire, saying their main focus now is on fighting the blazes. Assessments of damage will come later.

The Ruidoso Midtown area, known for its shops and restaurants, appeared to be intact through late afternoon. Smoky skies over a deserted street could be seen via a popular webcam.

Monday, most residents evacuated Ruidoso as the threat of the South Fork Fire especially grew throughout the afternoon and evening hours. Despite the order being described as mandatory, an unknown number of people remained behind in their homes, said Village of Ruidoso spokesperson Kerry Gladden.

“We did a mandatory evacuation of the village yesterday afternoon,” she said. “But in New Mexico, it’s against the law to make people leave their property. We had a lot of people go, but there were people that stayed.”

Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an emergency declaration concerning the Ruidoso fires, a move that opens the doors for funding to flow to the response efforts.

At least one federal website listed the source of the fires as human-caused. However, Gladden said she wasn’t able to verify that Tuesday.

The fire response was expected to transition to a high-level federal command structure Tuesday evening, according to Gladden.

One family’s evacuation story

Monday, long lines of cars formed on major evacuation routes, congested as thousands of people attempted to leave the area at the same time.

Among the evacuees was Lauren McCullough, who lives in the Rancho Ruidoso Valley Estates northeast of Alto. She said authorities have a “ready, set, go” three-stage warning system that’s supposed to be used to prepare people for evacuating from a fire. But the “get ready” stage hadn’t even been announced when police drove through the neighborhood telling people to evacuate.

“This thing escalated really quick,” she said.

About 30 minutes before police arrived, McCullough said the area was being rained upon by ash originating from the South Fork Fire.

McCullough had several plastic totes filled with decorations for her upcoming wedding. Anticipating a likely evacuation, she and her children emptied those and started filling them instead with “important stuff that wasn’t replaceable.”

“We ransacked our house,” she said. “And shortly after, our power went out.”

PNM power company did cut off power in areas Monday, but it’s unclear if that’s why McCullough’s power was shut off.

Her daughter, who’s attending New Mexico State University, is back home for the summer, which meant the family had two cars with which to evacuate.

“We were able to escape with eight totes, four suitcases and a dog, three cats, a snake and a ferret,” she said.

About 9 p.m. Monday, the family evacuated north on Hwy. 48. They continued to Albuquerque and are staying in a hotel until they can return, if their home is still standing. McCullough said she’s trying to remain calm in the face of a chaotic situation.

“I have a feeling we’ll be OK,” she said. “I definitely pray for the ones who aren’t so lucky.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative is a partnership of local newsrooms working together to cover important topics in the southern half of the state. For more information, visit www.southNMnews.org or www.surNMnoticias.org.)

Brienne Green
Daily Press Editor

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