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President Biden approves major disaster declaration for areas impacted by the South Fork and Salt fires

A car rides on the road to Roswell, N.M., as smoke from a wildfire partially blocks the sun near the village of Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings.
Andres Leighton
Associated Press
A car rides on the road to Roswell, N.M., as smoke from a wildfire partially blocks the sun near the village of Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings.

President Joe Biden Thursday approved a request by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for a Major Disaster Declaration covering Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico.

On Wednesday, the entire New Mexico Congressional delegation including U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, and U.S. Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández, Melanie Stansbury, and Gabe Vasquez sent a letter to President Biden, urging the federal administration to approve the request.

“We commend President Biden for approving the Major Disaster Declaration so quickly,” the delegation said in a joint statement. “The South Fork and Salt Fires are serious and threatening multiple communities, with two confirmed fatalities and hundreds of homes and businesses already destroyed. Our thoughts are with the families of those who have been lost to these fires and the thousands of New Mexicans who have had to flee their homes. And our gratitude is with the firefighters, first responders, local and Tribal leaders, and neighboring communities helping respond to this disaster. We will continue to work with FEMA and the State to make sure that Otero County and all New Mexicans impacted by this disaster receive the federal support they need.”

The approval opens access to Public Assistance and Individual Assistance funds from FEMA. Public Assistance supports local community emergency response as well as restoration and reconstruction of public infrastructure and lands. Individual Assistance supports families recovering from natural disasters.

The governor signed executive orders Thursday authorizing the release of $5.25 million in additional emergency funds for the Department of Homeland Security Management to support relief efforts.

“In the face of such a disaster, it is imperative that we act swiftly,” said

Gov. Lujan Grisham. “Although there is still a long road to full recovery ahead, these emergency funds will help stabilize these communities and provide much-needed assistance to those in need."

Patrick Lohmann
Source New Mexico

The South Fork has burned at least 16,335 acres, covered and destroyed 1,400 buildings, according to the New Mexico Forestry Division. The Salt fire has ravaged 7,071 acres. Both fires are 0% contained.

Two people have died from the South Fork Fire, according to New Mexico State Police. They were found in two separate areas on Tuesday, June 18.

The north and eastern sides of the fire are the focus for fire crews who continue to build firelines to prevent further fire growth. They are also actively working on protecting homes, properties, and critical infrastructure.

Wednesday’s rain ushered in cooler temperatures between 68 and 75 degrees Thursday with added cloud coverage that should be beneficial for firefighters. Storms are likely to develop over the lower east slopes of the Sacramento Mountains in the afternoon with 20 to 30 mph wind gusts.

With an estimated two to three inches of rain expected in the area Thursday evening, Ruidosos Lynn Crawford, Ruidoso Mayor, spoke on Let’s Talk New Mexico on the dangers of flooding in the area.

“Honestly, it's so active that it's dangerous. And even people in big four wheel drive pickups and young strong bodies, they get caught in it, because this stuff comes out of nowhere,” he said. “Just that little bit of rain we had yesterday, the wall of water was a foot and a half to two feet that was just coming down the river, the little tributaries. It overflowed the banks and went up to people's houses. It took trailers off of their foundations.”

There will be a community meeting tonight at 5pm where fire officials will give an update. This will also be an opportunity for residents to learn more about the ongoing efforts to combat the South Fork and Salt fires. You can join the meeting virtually via Facebook.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham launched a new Wildfire Dashboard Thursday to provide real-time updates and critical information on the fires. The dashboard is designed to keep residents informed by providing current fire conditions, fire perimeter maps, evacuation zones, air quality reports, and weather forecasts.

A state of emergency has been called for the Mescalero Apache Reservation implemented by the Tribal Council. Continued evacuations for the Village of Ruidoso and the City of Ruidoso Downs are still underway. And additional evacuation orders have been issued to Fantasy Lane, Summit area, Botella Road, Snow Springs, Fence Canyon, Whitetail, and Chihuahua Well.

Both Highway 48 and Highway 70 at Apache Summit remain closed. There is an open evacuation route on Highway 70 to Rosewell.

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. She’s a former Local News Fund Fellow. Jeanette can be contacted at jeanettededios@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.
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