Team combs fire-ravaged New Mexico community for remains of the missing

As residents return to a fire-ravaged village in the mountains of southern New Mexico, the mayor on Monday warned them that some parts of Ruidoso remain off limits as special search and rescue teams comb the charred rubble along the hardest-hit streets.

They’re looking for the remains of people who are still unaccounted for after the South Fork and Salt fires ripped through the area just days ago, killing at least two people, forcing thousands to flee and destroying more than 1,500 structures.

Mayor Lynn Crawford put the number of missing at 29. Village officials said in a Sunday night update that the search teams have identified potential additional fatalities, but any confirmation will have to be made by investigators.

“The search and rescue teams are in there and they’re with canines and so they’re still going property to property to property,” Crawford said during his Monday morning radio address.

With cell service going down during the evacuations last week, it made communication nearly impossible. While service slowly is being restored, some residents said Monday they are still having a difficult time connecting.

The 29 people on the list have not been in touch with friends or family since last Monday. The list was larger just a day ago, but village officials have been using social media and working with the American Red Cross to mark evacuees as “safe” as soon as they are heard from.

Authorities have blocked traffic into so-called exclusion zones to ensure these areas remain undisturbed until they are officially cleared. The FBI also is investigating, offering up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrests and convictions of those responsible for the human-caused fires.

The flames were first reported June 17. Within hours, the fires moved through tinder-dry parts of the Sacramento Mountains from Mescalero Apache tribal land toward Ruidoso. Evacuation orders included thousands of homes, businesses and the Ruidoso Downs horse track, prompting traffic jams as people dropped everything and fled.

Village officials estimate that several hundred homes were among the structures destroyed or damaged. Assessments continued Monday as some residents were allowed to return. Images shared on social media showed some homes reduced to ash, only their foundations or fireplaces left standing. Charred vehicles and twisted metal roofs were laying on hillsides where homes once stood.

Some properties were saved, although the ponderosa pines that once surrounded them had blackened trunks and their needles were singed.

The village set up temporary housing for about 500 people and food and other supplies were being distributed. Officials were encouraging residents who returned Monday to bring bottled water and a week's worth of food as some utilities have yet to be restored.

Several dozen members of the New Mexico Army and Air National Guard were stationed in Ruidoso to help. Utility workers also were installing new power poles and stringing wires throughout the community. Workers with the New Mexico Environment Department were testing the drinking water system.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for parts of southern New Mexico last Thursday, freeing up funding and resources to help with housing and other emergency work related to the fires.

The two fires have burned about 40 square miles (103.6 square kilometers). Monday brought another day of light rain and higher humidity levels, aiding firefighters as they bolstered lines around the perimeter. Full containment isn’t expected until July 15, according to fire officials.

Officials also warned residents to be mindful of the potential for flash flooding if more rain falls on the bare mountain slopes.

Kerry Gladden, a spokeswoman for the village of Ruidoso, noted that wildfires are nothing new to the Sacramento Mountains. But she called this “a whole other level of devastation.”

“It kind of takes your breath away when you see it,” she told The Associated Press. “And you know, we are resilient and we will rebuild and we will absolutely come back from this. But, boy, it’s hard to see it at this point.”

Susan Montoya Bryan, The Associated Press