New Mexico wildfires: Rain and hail bring hope and danger

June 20, 2024

Firefighters battle wildfires in New Mexico

Heavy rain and hail fell Wednesday around the village of Ruidoso in New Mexico, which had been evacuated due to wildfires.

The wildfires have killed at least two people and damaged more than 1,400 structures.

This weather change offered hope for firefighters, but also brought the threat of high winds and flash floods, as reported by AP News.

Air tankers have been dropping water and red retardant on the fires.

Earlier this week, residents of Ruidoso were forced to evacuate with little notice.

New Mexico State Police spokesman Wilson Silver confirmed the discovery of a second unidentified body in a burned vehicle, making it the second confirmed death.

The first victim was a 60-year-old man found near the Swiss Chalet Inn in Ruidoso.

Weather conditions impact firefighting efforts

Bladen Breitreiter of the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque reported shifting weather patterns on Wednesday.

Moisture from the Gulf of Mexico was arriving, leading to potential thunderstorms.

Breitreiter said: “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.”

Rain could also lead to dangerous flash flooding in newly burned areas.

It was not immediately clear if the rain and hail on Wednesday afternoon were affecting the fires.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the area until later in the evening.

The fires remained at 0% containment as of Wednesday afternoon, with crews using heavy equipment to build fire lines and dropping water and retardant from the air.

Evacuations and damage assessment

Hundreds of firefighters are on the scene, working to stop spot fires that could flare up.

More personnel from regional departments continue to arrive.

Ruidoso and much of the Southwest have experienced dry and hot conditions this spring, contributing to the rapid spread of the South Fork Fire into the village.

Evacuations included homes, businesses, a medical center, and the Ruidoso Downs horse track.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office confirmed one fatality but had no further details.

Approximately 1,400 structures have been destroyed or damaged.

A flyover for accurate mapping and damage assessment is being organized.

Ardis Holder, a Ruidoso resident, left with her two young daughters and said: “We were already seeing where all the fire hit, it’s everywhere. If there’s something standing, that’s awesome. But, if not, we were prepared for the worst.”

Federal assistance and ongoing wildfires

Governor Lujan Grisham requested a major disaster declaration from President Joe Biden’s administration to free up federal funding for housing and other assistance.

She declared a county-wide state of emergency extending to the neighboring Mescalero Apache Reservation, where the fires started, deploying National Guard troops and unlocking additional resources.

Nationwide, wildfires have burned more than 3,280 square miles this year, surpassing the 10-year averages.

About 20 wildfires are currently large and uncontained, including in California and Washington state.

The two New Mexico wildfires have together consumed more than 31 square miles.

The exact causes of the blazes are undetermined, but they are listed as human-caused by the Southwest Coordination Center.

Ruidoso and nearby areas have been filming locations for a movie about the 2018 wildfire in Paradise, California.

Ruidoso, a village with a population that expands during warmer months, is known for its cooler climate, aspen trees, hiking trails, and nearby amenities like a casino, golf course, and ski resort operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

FSJA comment

The situation in Ruidoso, New Mexico, highlights the complexity and danger of wildfire management, particularly when adverse weather conditions are involved.

While the recent rainfall and hail provide a potential reprieve for firefighters, the accompanying risks of high winds and flash floods complicate efforts on the ground.

The discovery of additional casualties and the ongoing evacuation efforts underscore the severity of these fires.

Governor Lujan Grisham’s request for federal assistance reflects the urgent need for resources to support those affected by the fires.

The rapid response by firefighters and the deployment of additional personnel show the critical nature of managing such large-scale disasters.

The broader context of increased wildfire activity nationwide emphasizes the ongoing challenges posed by climate conditions and the importance of preparedness and effective emergency response strategies.

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