Ruidoso, reeling from blaze, considers how to face fires to come
At this time of year, Ruidoso would usually be welcoming thousands of visitors to the forested, mountainous area for the Easter holiday.
This year, on the hills just behind the cabins and trailheads, a bright red smudge of aircraft-dropped fire retardant shows how close the McBride fire came to the middle of the village as it burned thousands of acres.
And at churches, hotels and the convention center, volunteers cook meals and sort donations for shocked people who used to live in more than 200 homes that were destroyed by the blaze that began Tuesday last week and was spread instantly by high winds.
“You have 50-plus years of life, and it’s gone, in less than an hour,” said Darrell Mayhew, who was having lunch and trying to figure out next steps at the convention center. “We retired six months ago from Texas, and came here. And whatever we had was there. It’s not there now.”
Mayhew, who worked for an auto parts company, had been looking forward to a quiet retirement with his wife in a stationary trailer in an RV park in this idyllic area. Now, the whole park is burned to the ground.
“Your whole life is just ashes,” he said. “What more can you say?”
Like many people here, the couple were forced to leave behind their dogs when they fled. Multiple residents of the Gavilan Canyon Road area, close to Ruidoso Middle School, described their astonishment at how fast the fire spread.
“At 2:35, I saw a little bit of smoke close to the middle school,” said pastor Dustin McEwan. “By 2:45, I saw houses on fire on the ridge just across from the street that I live on. So I went in, grabbed my dog, grabbed some paperwork. Forgot my daughter's special blanket, which was a shame on me.”
An elderly couple died in the fire, and officials and residents said that the death toll could easily have been higher if not for rapid evacuation processes, particularly at the school. Although many houses in Ruidoso are second homes for vacations, many of those affected were among the 8,000 permanent residents here.
As of Monday morning, officials described the fire as 80% contained and all evacuation notices were lifted. But the village must grapple with rehousing hundreds of people, and, looking forward, the possibility that a changed climate could make fires like this more common.
Fires are far from unknown in this area. A decade ago, the most destructive fire in New Mexico’s recorded history burned more than 240 homes here. But Mayor Lynn Crawford said the McBride fire was particularly bad in a number of ways.
“It was a lot different basically,” he said, “because of the hurricane force winds that we were having that we're just not used to, that we don't have.”
The fire’s cause is still under investigation but Crawford said wind snapped old growth pines like twigs, knocking over power lines and sparking forest foliage that has been getting drier year by year as rain patterns have changed.
“Usually, we get just slow rains, during June, July,” he said. “And now when we get a rain event, it's a big dump.”
This can cause flooding but isn’t easily absorbed, so drought conditions continue.
“We do see these type of events coming along more,” Crawford said.
Some studies do suggest that wind speeds have increased in several areas globally in the course of the last decade.
Senator Martin Heinrich also visited Ruidoso over the weekend. After speaking with volunteers and officials, he told KUNM he too sees high winds becoming more common in New Mexico and said power infrastructure needs to adapt
“We need to figure out how to have a more resilient grid to reduce the number of extreme fire events that we have as a result of a grid that just wasn't built for these kinds of wind speeds,” he said.
Speaking at the conference center, he added there are other important adaptions to a drier environment with higher risk of fire, but he sees some resistance to, for example, cutting back forests around houses in this tourist town.
“You have to be willing to live in a somewhat altered environment,” he said. It’s scenic to live on a property with lots of trees on the land, but, “in the in the middle of a suburban environment, that can be a real problem when the fires come. And we know it's not if they're going to come, it's when.”
Local officials say they are just beginning to meet with federal agencies to discuss how to rehouse people. Meantime, the community continues to give time, money and help to those affected. The Community Foundation of Lincoln County is raising funds for victims of the McBride fire and another nearby fire in Nogal Canyon.
At the Gateway Church, people sorted through piles of donated clothes, diapers, toiletries. Volunteer Azori Sparks said families are still figuring out what’s next.
“A lot of the families that need things” she said “they're not able to come and get what they need right now, because they're still in a hotel, or they don't have a place to take much.”
“I don't anticipate that this will be a weekend event,” she said firmly. “This is a long term effort.”