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MON: Team combs fire-ravaged community for remains of the missing, floods prompt evacuation in Las Vegas, +More

A charred car and the remains of the Swiss Chalet Hotel are pictured after being destroyed by the South Fork Fire in the mountain village of Ruidoso, N.M., Saturday, June 22, 2024.
Andres Leighton/AP
FR171260 AP
A charred car and the remains of the Swiss Chalet Hotel are pictured after being destroyed by the South Fork Fire in the mountain village of Ruidoso, N.M., Saturday, June 22, 2024.

Team combs fire-ravaged New Mexico community for remains of the missing– Associated Press

As residents return to a fire-ravaged village in the mountains of southern New Mexico, the mayor on Monday warned them that some parts of Ruidoso remain off limits as special search and rescue teams comb the charred rubble along the hardest-hit streets.

They're looking for the remains of people who are still unaccounted for after the South Fork and Salt fires ripped through the area just days ago, killing at least two people, forcing thousands to flee and destroying more than 1,500 structures.

Mayor Lynn Crawford put the number of missing at 29. Village officials said in a Sunday night update that the search teams have identified potential additional fatalities, but any confirmation will have to be made by investigators.

"The search and rescue teams are in there and they're with canines and so they're still going property to property to property," Crawford said during his Monday morning radio address.

Authorities have blocked traffic into so-called exclusion zones to ensure these areas remain undisturbed until they are officially cleared. The FBI also is investigating, offering up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrests and convictions of those responsible for the human-caused fires.

The flames were first reported June 17. Within hours, the fires moved through tinder-dry parts of the Sacramento Mountains from Mescalero Apache tribal land toward Ruidoso. Evacuation orders included thousands of homes, businesses and the Ruidoso Downs horse track, prompting traffic jams as people dropped everything and fled.

Village officials estimate that several hundred homes were among the structures destroyed or damaged. Assessments continued Monday as some residents were allowed to return. Images shared on social media showed some homes reduced to ash, only their foundations or fireplaces left standing. Charred vehicles and twisted metal roofs were laying on hillsides where homes once stood.

However, some properties were saved, although the ponderosa pines that once surrounded them had blackened trunks and their needles were singed.

The village has set up temporary housing for about 500 people and food and other supplies were being distributed. Officials were encouraging residents who returned Monday to bring bottled water and a week's worth of food as some utilities have yet to be restored.

Several dozen members of the New Mexico Army and Air National Guard were stationed in Ruidoso to help. Utility workers also were installing new power poles and stringing wires throughout the community. Workers with the New Mexico Environment Department also were testing the drinking water system.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for parts of southern New Mexico last Thursday, freeing up funding and resources to help with housing and other emergency work related to the fires.

The two fires have burned about 40 square miles. Monday brought another day of light rain and higher humidity levels, aiding firefighters as they bolstered lines around the perimeter. Full containment isn't expected until July 15, according to fire officials.

Officials also warned residents to be mindful of the potential for flash flooding if more rain falls on the bare mountain slopes.

Kerry Gladden, a spokeswoman for the village of Ruidoso, noted that wildfires are nothing new to the Sacramento Mountains. But she called this "a whole other level of devastation."

"It kind of takes your breath away when you see it," she told The Associated Press. "And you know, we are resilient and we will rebuild and we will absolutely come back from this. But, boy, it's hard to see it at this point."

FBI seeks suspects in 2 New Mexico wildfires that killed 2 people, damaged hundreds of buildings Associated Press

Full-time residents of Ruidoso will be allowed to return to their village Monday morning as federal authorities seek to prosecute whoever started a pair of New Mexico wildfires that killed two people and destroyed or damaged more than 1,400 structures.

The FBI said it is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrests and convictions of those responsible for the South Fork Fire and Salt Fire in southern New Mexico, which forced thousands to flee.

The federal agency also said it was seeking public assistance in identifying the cause of the fires discovered June 17 near the village of Ruidoso.

But the notice also pointedly suggested human hands were to blame, saying the reward was for information leading to the arrest and conviction of "the person or persons responsible for starting the fires.

Lincoln County Manager Randall Camp said at a news conference Saturday that "we are approaching a thousand homes lost" in the fires.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for parts of southern New Mexico on Thursday. The move freed up funding and more resources to help with recovery efforts including temporary housing, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property and other emergency work in Lincoln County and on lands belonging to the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

The National Interagency Fire Center said the South Fork Fire, which reached 26 square miles (67 square kilometers), was 31% contained Sunday. It said the Salt Fire that has spread over 12 square miles (31 square kilometers) was now 7% contained.

Both fires had been at zero containment Friday. Full containment isn't expected until July 15, according to fire officials.

More than 1,100 firefighters continued to fight the flames in steep and rocky terrain Sunday.

The South Fork and Salt fires are still burning on both sides of Ruidoso and a threat of flash floods still looms over the village.

Authorities said downed power lines, damaged water, sewer and gas lines plus flooding in burn scars continued to pose risks to firefighters and the public.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham toured some of the disaster area Saturday with Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Deanne Criswell.

Even with federal and state assistance on the table, Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford estimates it could take at least five years for the area to fully recover.

Ruidoso officials said those wanting to return home Monday must bring drinking water and at least a week's worth of food. They warned residents that homes may be without gas, electricity or water.

Ruidoso Village to open Monday to full time residents and locals that fled NM wildfires — Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

Ruidoso Village to open Monday to full time residents and locals that fled NM wildfires

New Mexicans that evacuated the South Fork and Salt fires will be allowed to return to their homes in Ruidoso Village starting on today at 8 a.m.

The announcement made Saturday morning is exclusive to full time and local residents only. Ruidoso Village is a vacation and retirement community in southeast New Mexico that tourists visit throughout the year.

Village officials said that second-home owners and tourists must wait their turn as the first group of people assess the damage caused by the fires and floods this week.

Information on when tourists and second home owners can return will be released by the Village of Ruidoso, which has also set up a list of things to expect for people returning.

People who go back to their homes on Monday will likely not have gas, electricity or water services. Poor air quality will be an issue, with smoke and ash in the air. People with lung or breathing issues are advised to stay out of Ruidoso for now.

Lincoln County Medical Center will be open Monday, village officials said.

Food deliveries are infrequent so anyone returning is told to prepare a week of groceries and supplies for their family and animals.

For the first time, fire crews reported some containment of both fires. The June 22 update shows that the South Fork is now 26 percent contained, while the Salt Fire is 7 percent contained.

The South Fork Fire has burned 17,614 acres and the Salt Fire has burned 7,652 acres.

Unemployment Assistance available for victims of South Fork and Salt Fires Daniel Montaño

Unemployment payments will soon be coming for victims of the South Fork and Salt fires who have lost wages because of the blazes.

The New Mexico Department of Workforce solutions announced Friday they are accepting applications for Disaster Unemployment Assistance for people who are unemployed as a direct result of the fires.

In addition to accepting applications over the phone and at all Workforce Connection Centers, the department held extended hours in person at the Roswell Convention Center Friday through Yesterday.

Applicants for the disaster assistance must first apply for standard unemployment, which can be done online. After receiving notice they are not eligible for the standard payments, they can then go in person to any Workforce Connection Center, or call the Unemployment Insurance Operations Center.

Disaster assistance applications are only accepted in person or over the phone to prevent fraud.

Workforce solutions says claimants should file as soon as possible, and that applications filed after August 9 will be considered untimely, and dismissed unless good cause can be shown.

The disaster payments will be available for weeks starting on June 23 until December 21.

The department said those who were already collecting standard unemployment insurance, should check the box indicating they were affected by the fires for claims between those dates.

New Mexico heavy rain and flash flooding prompt mandatory evacuations Associated Press

Heavy rain and flash flood warnings in New Mexico prompted officials to order some mandatory evacuations, with shelters set up for displaced residents.

The National Weather Service office announced a flash flood emergency on Friday night through early Saturday. The impacted areas included the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico and communities near Albuquerque.

Up to 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain had fallen by late Friday with additional rainfall up to 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) expected overnight, the weather service said.

There was flash flooding with multiple road closures on the north and west sides of Las Vegas, the weather service said.

The Las Vegas municipal government announced mandatory evacuations of parts of the city in social media posts, warning residents to prepare for overnight stays. The city said it established shelters for residents on the west and east sides of the city.

The city government asked residents to limit non-essential water use, while also clarifying that online rumors suggesting the city's water dams had broken were false and that the dams "are currently intact."

New Mexico also suffered devastating wildfires this week that killed at least two people and forced thousands to flee from the flames. The South Fork and Salt fires in south-central New Mexico destroyed or damaged an estimated 1,400 structures. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham planned to tour the disaster area Saturday.