President Biden declares disaster state for Ruidoso fires

Influx of moisture a boon for firefighters


President Joe Biden on Thursday declared a state of disaster in connection to two fires that have burned or destroyed an estimated 1,400 structures in the Ruidoso area and claimed at least two lives.

For the second day in row, expected rainfall brought a high risk of flooding to areas around Ruidoso. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch effective through 6 a.m. Friday.

Weather officials said an influx of moisture into the region from the Gulf of Mexico has helped to slow the blazes’ growth and creates more favorable conditions for firefighting the next few days. Both fires are still considered 0% contained, despite massive firefighting efforts on several of the blazes’ fronts.

Separately, the multi-agency team coordinating firefighting efforts hosted a virtual public meeting Thursday evening on Facebook, the first such event since the South Fork Fire and the Salt Fire ignited Monday. The recorded livestream racked up more than 24,000 plays in a three-hour span.

State police said Thursday no further bodies have been discovered beyond the two deaths announced earlier this week. Also, the second victim, first announced Wednesday, remains unidentified.

Opening up federal funding

The president’s disaster declaration allows federal funding to flow to people who’ve been affected by the fires in Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation next-door to Ruidoso.

“Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster,” the president’s declaration states.

The declaration also can lead to funding for local, state, and tribal governments and some nonprofits for emergency responses.

Residents and business owners who sustained losses in the designated areas can begin applying for assistance at, or by calling 800-621-FEMA (3362), or by using the FEMA App, according to the news release.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this week declared a state-level emergency relating to the fires.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation sent a letter Wednesday seeking that Biden issue the declaration. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico announced he’ll be visiting Lincoln County on Friday to meet with first responders, residents and tribal leaders.

Slower fire growth

Heading into Wednesday night, officials were concerned about the impact of significant rainfall on the Ruidoso area. While moisture and precipitation can help quench the fire, intense and erratic winds produced by storms also can spread flames. Plus, burn scars create flash flood risks.

Authorities said rain fell Wednesday on the northern part of the South Fork Fire, burning north and west of Ruidoso, but not much fell on the Salt Fire, burning to the south of the village. The storm dropped large hail and caused flash flooding that carried debris and prompted swift water rescues, but it appears not to have created significant spread of the fires themselves.

Officials weren’t able to update the official totals of burned acreage because a plane that typically surveys the blazes at night couldn’t because of cloud cover. Still, Commander Dave Gesser of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team #5, a multi-agency group responding to the disaster, said there’s estimated growth of just under 15 acres on the South Fork Fire (for a total of nearly 16,400 acres burned) and about 500 acres on the Salt Fire (for a total of about 7,650 acres burned).

The number of firefighters combatting the blazes is now approaching 1,000 – about four times the personnel assigned two days ago. Nearly 600 personnel are assigned to the South Fork Fire, while more than 400 are on the Salt Fire.

Weather conditions have shaped up to help to mitigate the fires’ spread, said Tom Bird, meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Santa Teresa office. With the arrival of significant moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, the relative humidity is now about 40% in the daytime and up to 95% at night. That’s compared to being “in the single digits with no recovery at night” in recent days.

Plants and materials burn less readily with more humidity in the air, fire officials said.

Winds are expected to be light the next few days, said Bird, who’s part of the incident response team. Plus, cloud cover reduces the amount of sun hitting plants to dry them out, and overall temperatures will be cooler.

“That really does work in our benefit,” Bird told attendees at the virtual meeting.

Arthur Gonzales, fire behavior analyst with the incident team, said “very little growth” is expected for both fires over the next three to four days.

“What we're focusing on is: When will we see that return to active fire spread?” he said.

The caveat of the weather pattern is that there’s plenty of moisture in the atmosphere for thunderstorms, creating flood risk and outflow winds that affect fires. Indeed, a National Weather Service flood watch is in effect through early Friday.

Gonzales said the situation in Ruidoso is “very unique” because crews are dealing with active fires and trying to mitigate flood risk at the same time. Usually, flooding – which is worsened by vegetation-stripped burn scars – happens sometime after a fire response has wrapped up.

Evacuation orders still in place

Thousands of residents remain displaced by the blazes and are staying in temporary shelters and in hotels and Air BnBs across the region.

Officials fielded questions during the public meeting about when standing evacuation orders for Ruidoso and Ruidoso Downs will be lifted. Lincoln County Undersheriff Geraldine Martinez said she expects “they're going to have to be held for a significant amount of time.”

Gesser said restrictions on returning to the area will be lifted in phases.

“When we deem an area is safe to go to, it will be lifted,” he said.

Some residents expressed concerns over a rumor there’s looting of homes in evacuated areas. Martinez said the sheriff’s department while patrolling has encountered people who remain inside evacuated zones, but deputies haven’t found evidence of “mass looting or anything like that.”

Officials discouraged residents from trying to return to the evacuation zones, saying it strains limited resources to have more people present than necessary in a disaster area. Cell phone signal, for instance, is limited because of damaged infrastructure.

Gesser said utility and service providers, including cell phone, electricity and internet, are working to repair infrastructure that’s been damaged in the blazes. He told attendees that, because of the communication gaps, just because someone hasn’t been reachable doesn’t mean they’re missing.

An unknown number of people did not evacuate despite orders to do so.

Authorities clarified Thursday that an estimate of 1,400 structures affected by the two fires comes from the state forestry division and not the federal incident team. That estimate can include outbuildings and sheds, in addition to homes and businesses. A more complete picture will require on-the-ground damage assessments, which haven’t occurred yet.

With questions, people can reach out to the incident response team at: 575-323-8258 and .

There’s a 90 percent chance of rain in the forecast for Ruidoso for Friday. Chances decrease Saturday but remain in the forecast for next seven days, according to the National Weather Service.

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