Cooler temperatures and rain could help corral blazes that forced thousands to flee New Mexico village

An air tanker soars through a large plume of smoke
An air tanker flies over Ruidoso, N.M., where a wildfire forced residents to abruptly evacuate.
(Chancey Bush / Associated Press)
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Cooler weather — and the chance of rain — could bring some relief but also the risk of danger this week to firefighters battling blazes in southern New Mexico that have killed at least one person, damaged hundreds of structures and forced thousands to evacuate.

Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee with little notice Monday. Weather patterns were shifting with moisture from a tropical wave in the Gulf of Mexico, Bladen Breitreiter of the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque said Wednesday.

“It will be a challenging situation going into the late afternoon and evening,” said Breitreiter, who has been an incident meteorologist at past wildfires. “The potential for scattered to isolated thunderstorms could help, but it depends on where they hit. If the rain misses the fires, downward winds could cause problems for firefighters on the ground.”


He said rain could also lead to dangerous flash flooding in newly burned areas in the mountainous region.

The two fires remained at 0% containment at midday Wednesday as crews used heavy equipment to build fire lines while water and retardant was dropped from the air, authorities said.

The U.S. Forest Service says its own prescribed burn started a 2022 wildfire that nearly burned into Los Alamos, New Mexico.

July 24, 2023

Officials said about 254 firefighters were on the scene by the early morning and alert to any spot fires that could flare up. More personnel from agencies around the region were continuing to arrive Wednesday.

Ruidoso, like much of the Southwest, has been exceedingly dry and hot this spring. Those conditions, along with strong wind, whipped flames out of control Monday and Tuesday, rapidly advancing the South Fork fire into the village. Along with homes and businesses, a regional medical center and the Ruidoso Downs horse track were evacuated.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office confirmed one fatality due to the fire but did not share any details.

New Mexico State Police spokesperson Wilson Silver said Wednesday that the department had been notified about a 60-year-old man found Tuesday on the side of the road near a Ruidoso motel. Patrick Pearson apparently died from burns sustained from the fire, Silver said.


About 1,400 structures have been destroyed or damaged, but it’s unclear how many were homes. A flyover to provide more accurate mapping and a better assessment of damage is being organized, Lujan Grisham said.

Miscalculations, inaccurate models and underestimation of dry conditions turned a controlled burn into New Mexico’s largest wildfire ever recorded.

June 21, 2022

Ardis Holder left Ruidoso with her two young daughters, her gas tank nearly empty as she prayed they’d make it out safely. She is sure the house she was renting in the village she grew up in is gone, based on the fire maps she’s seen.

“We were already seeing where all the fire hit. It’s everywhere,” she said late Tuesday from a shelter in nearby Roswell. “If there’s something standing, that’s awesome. But, if not, we were prepared for the worst.”

About 1,500 horses stabled at Ruidoso Downs were moved in a chaotic scene after authorities ordered they be evacuated for the animals’ safety, said horse trainer John Stinebaugh. He had his clients’ 42 race-horses moved Tuesday afternoon to Artesia, about 100 miles to the southeast, where they were stabled at the local fairgrounds.

“The people here have rolled out the red carpet, provided help with hay and water,” said Stinebaugh. “People from all over just showed up with trailers to help move the horses, taking them to ranches all over New Mexico, to Hobbs, Roswell, even El Paso.”

The big blaze burning near the community of Las Vegas has charred more than 188 square miles.

May 2, 2022

Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency in Lincoln County that extended to the neighboring Mescalero Apache Reservation, where both fires started, and deployed National Guard troops. The declaration unlocks funding and resources to manage the crisis.


Nationwide, wildfires have scorched more than 3,280 square miles this year — a figure higher than the 10-year averages, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 20 wildfires now burning, including in California and Washington state, are considered large and uncontained.

Lujan Grisham said the two New Mexico wildfires together have consumed more than 31 square miles. The exact causes of the blazes haven’t been determined, but the Southwest Coordination Center listed them as human-caused.

While many older residents call Ruidoso home year-round, the population of around 7,000 people expands to about 25,000 during the warmer months, when New Mexicans and Texans from hotter climates seek the cool of the leafy aspen trees, hiking trails and a chance to go fishing.

Nestled within the Lincoln National Forest, Ruidoso has nearby amenities including a casino, golf course and ski resort operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe. Horse races at the Ruidoso Downs draw crowds as home to one of the sport’s richest quarter-horse competitions.

New Mexico’s governor has signed emergency declarations as 20 wildfires continued to burn in nearly half of the state’s drought-stricken 33 counties.

April 24, 2022

Ruidoso residents fled Monday through traffic-clogged downtown streets some described as apocalyptic, with smoke darkening the evening sky, embers raining down and 100-foot flames in the distance climbing over a ridgeline.

On social media posts, Ruidoso officials didn’t mince words: “GO NOW: Do not attempt to gather belongings or protect your home. Evacuate immediately.”


Public Service Co. of New Mexico, the state’s largest electricity provider, shut off power to part of the village due to the fire.

Lujan Grisham said cellphone service was affected in some communities near the fire, and mobile cell towers were being set up to restore communications.

Due to highway closures, many evacuees had to flee eastward and to Roswell, 75 miles away, where hotels and shelters quickly filled. A rural gas station along the evacuation route was overrun with people and cars.

Lee and Leighton write for the Associated Press. Lee reported from Santa Fe, N.M.. AP writers Sarah Brumfield in Washington; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz.; Anita Snow in Phoenix; Rio Yamat and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; and Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.