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

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

They are searching for the remains of people still missing after the South Fork and Salt fires swept through the area several days ago, killing at least two people, forcing thousands to flee and more than Destroyed 1,500 structures.

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

“The search and rescue teams are there and they have dogs with them and so they’re still going from property to property,” Crawford said during his radio address Monday morning.

Because the mobile connection went out during the evacuations last week, communication became virtually impossible. While service is slowly being restored, some residents said Monday they are still having trouble connecting.

The 29 people on the list have not had contact with friends or family since last Monday. The list was larger just a day ago, but village officials are using social media and working with the American Red Cross to label evacuees as “safe” as soon as they are heard from.

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

The flames were first reported on June 17. Within hours, the fires spread 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 racing track, leading to traffic jams people dropped everything and fled.

Village officials estimate that several hundred homes were among the buildings destroyed or damaged. The assessments continued Monday as some residents were allowed to return. Images shared on social media showed some homes reduced to ashes, with only the foundation or fireplace left standing. Charred vehicles and twisted metal roofs littered the hills where homes once stood.

Some properties were preserved, although the ponderosa pines that once surrounded them had blackened trunks and their needles were scorched.

The village provided temporary housing for about 500 people and distributed food and other supplies. Officials encouraged 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 assist. Utility workers were also installing new utility poles and stringing wires throughout the community. New Mexico Environmental Department workers were testing the drinking water system.

President Joe Biden has one 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 104 square kilometers. Monday brought another day of light rain and higher humidity, which helped firefighters strengthen lines around the perimeter. Full containment is not expected until July 15, according to fire officials.

Officials also warned residents to be aware of the potential for flash flooding if more rain falls on the barren 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 different level of devastation.”

“It’s breathtaking when you see it,” she told The Associated Press. “And you know, we are resilient and we will rebuild and we will absolutely bounce back from this. But boy, it’s hard to see it right now.