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Couple found dead as wildfire destroys New Mexico homes

UPDATED: Thu., April 14, 2022

By Susan Montoya Bryan and Paul Davenport Associated Press Associated Press

The remains of a New Mexico couple were found near their burned home as a wind-driven wildfire charred more than 200 residences on the edge of a mountain community in the south of the state.

Fire crews Thursday used a break in what had been a steady stream of relentless gusts to make headway against the wildfire, which is believed to have killed the two people.

Police investigators and firefighters found the older couple’s remains Wednesday after family members notified Ruidoso police the two had tried to evacuate but were unaccounted for.

The remains were found near the home but not in it, and no additional information was immediately available, Ruidoso spokesperson Kerry Gladden said Thursday. Authorities were working to confirm the identities of the two people.

The fire moved into a more densely populated area on Ruidoso’s northeastern side Wednesday, prompting more evacuations. Laura Rabon, a spokesperson for the Lincoln National Forest, interrupted a fire briefing and told people to get in their cars and leave after flames jumped a road where crews were trying to hold the line.

Authorities have told as many as 4,500 people to evacuate.

“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 were evacuated by bus, with flames visible in the forest as they drove away.

Overnight, crews kept the flames from pushing further into the village, and Rabon said progress continued Thursday as helicopters dropped water and ground crews secured lines on the east and south sides. They put out hot spots in the neighborhoods where the flames raced through earlier this week.

The fire has torched an estimated 9 square miles of forest and grass, and the strong winds that battered the area have left behind toppled trees and downed power lines. Crews continued work Thursday to restore power to parts of the village that have been without it since Monday.

Email is no longer working in the school district, Ruidoso Municipal Schools said Thursday on Facebook, and the school’s website was down. The school’s servers have not been able to come back online because of the electricity outages, Gladden said.

While the cause of the blaze was under investigation, 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 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 in five states.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported that since the start of the year, 18,550 wildfires have burned about 1,250 square miles. That’s well above the 10-year average of 12,290 wildfires and 835 square miles 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 Las Vegas and in grasslands along the Pecos River near the town of Roswell.

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