5,000 under eviction orders during wildfires in New Mexico – NBC New York

Authorities removed several evacuation orders for a mountainous community in drought-stricken southern Mexico as firefighters worked Saturday to control a wind-driven fire that killed two people and destroyed more than 200 homes.

Evacuation orders lifted late Friday covered about 60 percent of the estimated 4,500 people leaving their homes since the fire began on Tuesday, Ruidoso village spokesman Kerry Gelden told the Associated Press on Saturday. Evacuation estimates have previously been reported at about 5,000 people.

“The big story is that we are in a state of repopulation,” Gelden said earlier during a media briefing.

Those remaining eviction orders are likely to be revoked in the coming days, officials said.

Those waiting to return included Barbara Arthur, the owner of a 28-site wooded RV park that had wind damage but was not burned.

“We feel welcome,” said Arthur, who on Saturday stayed at the motel and prepared taco ingredients to take to another RV park for dinner with people displaced by the fire, including some of its occupants.

Arthur said the fire came within 0.8 miles of her park and that she saw flames during the evacuation. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever been through in my 71 years of life,” she said.

Bob Moroni, who works for a company that runs night rentals at the Ruidoso River Resort, said three different groups, about 15 people in total, were uprooted from the fire and staying in units in the complex.

“These are really people who left for work in the morning and did not return home,” he said, adding that for many, their homes are “absolute losses. They are only up to the chimneys and foundations at this point.”

Moroni, a qualified mediator for the Claire Williams Casa Ideal, said that for now, the DPs are just trying to unload the compression while they understand insurance and other measures.

Fire incident commander Dave Bales said crews worked to extinguish hot spots and clear lines along the perimeter of the fire to prevent the fire from spreading. The fire has no restraint, but Bales expressed a combination of satisfaction with the work done so far and the prospects for the coming days.

Saturday weather conditions looked favorable with reduced wind and increased humidity, Bales said. “We have lines. We just want to make sure they hold on to that spirit,” he said.

The fire and the winds that spread it knocked down power lines and cut off power to 18,000 customers. Electricity was returned to all customers except a few dozen, said Wilson Gwyn, director of the public service.

But people returning to their homes should be careful and call service officials if they encounter degraded lines, Gwyn said.

“We may have missed something,” Gwyn said. “Do not try to touch them, fix them, roll them, whatever.”

Gelden, the village spokesman, said residents should also be aware that strong winds earlier this week could cause damage to trees that may still fall or lose limbs.

“It’s important that what started this whole event was a significant windstorm,” she said.

Hot lines were lit Friday afternoon as residents reported additional smoke, which according to fire information officer Mike de Vries was caused by flares inside the fire, when flames found pockets of unburned fuel.

The fire started in the neighborhood and then spread to more remote areas, de Paris said on Saturday. Authorities are investigating the cause.

“What you have here in Ruidoso are sections where houses are being demolished, many houses are being demolished within neighborhoods,” de Paris said. “Then there is the clear evidence and traces of the fire as it progressed north and west, and in some cases neighborhood to neighborhood, as it burned through the village of North and East Ruidoso.”

Authorities have not yet released the names of the couple who died. Their bodies were found after concerned family members contacted police, saying the couple planned to evacuate Tuesday when the fire exploded, but no information was obtained later that day.

As of Saturday, the fire had burned 9.6 square miles (25 square miles) of wood and a brush.

Warmer and drier weather along with decades of firefighting have contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned in fires, fire scientists say. The problem is exacerbated by mega-western droughts of more than 20 years, which studies link to man-made climate change.

There are other fires in the country, including the smaller fire of Nougal Canyon northwest of Ruidoso. That fire was caused by downed power lines, de Paris said, and burned six homes and eight outbuildings. People were instructed to leave the area.

“We are currently in a period, even though it is very early in the year, where in places like New Mexico there were more segments of particularly dry weather,” de Paris said. “Combine that with some winds, and you can see from the number of fires that occur and the number of new starts each day and each week that the conditions of the fires are a big concern.”

Ruidoso a decade ago was the site of the most devastating fire in New Mexico’s documented history, with more than 240 homes burned and nearly 70 square miles (181 square kilometers) of forest blackened by a blazing fire.

While many older residents call Ruidoso home all year round, the population of about 8,000 people expands to about 25,000 during the summer months, with the new Texans and Mexicans from a warmer climate seeking respite.

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This story has been corrected to spell the last name of a fire information officer as De Fries, not DeFries.

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Associated Press journalists Julie Walker, Paul Davenport and Amy Forliti contributed to this report.

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