A wildfire that has burned more than 200 homes on the edge of a mountain community in the southern part of New Mexico and killed two people was caused when a power line was toppled by strong winds, according to state authorities.
Crews worked Thursday to restore power to parts of the village. The lack of electricity also has affected the school district’s servers, email system and website. Firefighters used a break in what had been a steady stream of relentless gusts to make headway against the deadly blaze.
The remains of the couple were found Wednesday afternoon near their home after family members notified Ruidoso police that the two had tried to evacuate but were unaccounted for. Authorities were working to confirm the identities of the two people.
The fire had moved into a more densely populated area of Ruidoso, prompting more evacuations, about 5,000 people. Laura Rabon, a spokesperson for the Lincoln National Forest, interrupted a fire briefing Wednesday to tell people to get in their cars and leave after the flames jumped a road where crews were trying to hold the line.
“We’ve had students who’ve lost their homes. We have to support them on Tuesday” when school resumes, said high school English teacher Sara Ames Brown, who was with students when they evacuated by bus, with flames visible in the forest outside as they drove away.
Overnight, crews kept the flames from pushing further into the village, and Rabon said that progress continued Thursday as helicopters dropped water and ground crews secured lines on the east and south sides. They also put out hot spots in the neighborhoods where the flames raced through earlier this week.
The fire has torched an estimated 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) of forest and grass, and the strong winds that battered the area have left behind toppled trees and down power lines.
Fire officials and forecasters warned that persistent dry and windy conditions had prompted another day of red flag warnings for the eastern third of New Mexico and other parts of the Midwest.
Incident Commander Dave Bales said the strategy was “attack while we can," noting that winds were expected to pick up again Friday.
“We're trying to keep this fire as small as possible, especially because it's right in the community,” he said. “We've had a loss of a lot of structures so our crews are right there on the fire front going as direct as possible.”
Six new large fires were reported Wednesday: three in Texas, two in Colorado and one in Oklahoma. In all, wildland firefighters and support personnel were trying to contain 11 large fires that have charred more than 40 square miles (103 square kilometers) in five states.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Thursday that since the start of the year, 18,550 wildfires have burned about 1,250 square miles (3,237 square kilometers). That's well above the 10-year average of 12,290 wildfires and 835 square miles (2162.64 square kilometers) burned.
Hotter and drier weather coupled with decades of fire suppression have contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists say. The problem is exacerbated by a more than 20-year Western megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change.
Elsewhere in New Mexico, wildfires were burning northwest of Ruidoso, along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque, in mountains northwest of the community of Las Vegas and in grasslands along the Pecos River near the town of Roswell.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Davenport from Phoenix.
Cedar Attanasio contributed reporting from Santa Fe. Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.