N.M. fire damages 224 residences

A burned SUV at a home on Wolf Springs Loop near Ruidoso, N.M., shows a bit of the devastation caused by a wildfire in the Gila National Forest. Enlarge photo

Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal

A burned SUV at a home on Wolf Springs Loop near Ruidoso, N.M., shows a bit of the devastation caused by a wildfire in the Gila National Forest.

RUIDOSO, N.M. – A second day of surveying the damage from a wildfire in the mountains of southern New Mexico confirmed Tuesday what many anxious residents had feared: the list of homes left blackened and smoldering by the fast-moving flames was growing.

Workers with the Lincoln County assessor’s office found only heaps of burned metal and other debris at sites hit hardest by the fire. So far, the office has confirmed 224 residences – homes and cabins – and 10 outbuildings on the outskirts of Ruidoso have been either damaged or destroyed, and that number was expected to increase.

Gov. Susana Martinez surveyed the damage from the air and declared an emergency in the county as firefighters used favorable weather to make more progress against the blaze.

The governor said crews have been working around the clock since the lightning-sparked fire ignited Friday. Growing tenfold in one day, the fire has taken “an enormous toll” on Lincoln County, she said.

The emergency declaration makes funding and additional resources from the state available for fire operations and community support. President Barack Obama tried to call Martinez on Tuesday to check on the fire, but the governor’s office said the poor reception in the area kept the two from connecting.

“It’s truly heartbreaking to see the damage done to this beautiful part of the country. It’s devastating to see the specific homes that have been destroyed,” she said.

Martinez said the growth of the fire in the Sierra Blanca Mountains had slowed. It was 35 percent contained, but Ruidoso remained on alert for possible evacuation.

Firefighters were hoping cooler, slightly more humid weather will enable them to continue making progress. Crews have built 25 miles of containment lines.

Nearly 1,000 firefighters, more than 200 National Guardsmen and eight helicopters were at the fire, and managers said a large DC-10 air tanker with a capacity of about 12,000 gallons was also available, if needed.

A total of 19 large fires were burning in nine states, including the fire near Ruidoso and the largest wildfire in state history, a blaze in the Gila National Forest. Officials said federal agencies have made about 4,500 firefighters available, and across the Southwest, about three-quarters of at least 60 hand crews were already assigned to fires.

The roster will be bolstered in the next day or two with another seven to eight hot-shot crews in case new fires start, said Kenan Jaycox, manager of the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, a multi-agency operation that helps plot firefighting operations across the Southwest.

“Availability any given day fluctuates, but we try to plan ahead as best we can and make sure we have the resources to respond to any new incidents,” Jaycox said.

In the Gila forest, more than 500 firefighters continued bolstering lines around the fire, which is the largest burning in the country. Lightning-sparked two fires in mid-May that eventually merged to form the massive blaze.