The remains of a New Mexico couple were found near their burned home as a wind-driven wildfire charred more than 200 residences on the edge of a mountain community in the southern part of the state.
Fire crews on Thursday pointed to a break in what has been a steady stream of relentless gusts as their chance to make headway against the deadly wildfire, which is believed to have killed the two people, Ruidoso spokesperson Kerry Gladden said Thursday.
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Police investigators and firefighters found the older couple’s remains Wednesday afternoon after family members notified Ruidoso police that the two had tried to evacuate but were unaccounted for.
The remains were found near the home but not in it, and no additional information was immediately available, Gladden said. Authorities were working to confirm the identities of the two people.
The fire moved into a more densely populated area on Ruidoso’s northeastern side Wednesday afternoon, prompting more evacuations. Laura Rabon, a spokesperson for the Lincoln National Forest, interrupted a fire briefing and told people to get in their cars and leave after the flames jumped a road where crews were trying to hold the line.
Authorities have told as many as 4,500 people to evacuate. Overnight, crews kept the flames from pushing further into the village, Rabon said.
The fire has torched about 23 square kilometres (nine square miles) of forest and grass, and the strong winds that battered the area have left behind toppled trees and down power lines. Crews continued work Thursday to restore power to parts of the village that have been without it since Monday.
While the cause of the blaze was under investigation, fire officials and forecasters warned that persistent dry and windy conditions had prompted another day of red flag warnings for the eastern third of New Mexico and other parts of the Midwest.
Incident Commander Dave Bales said the strategy was “attack while we can,” noting that winds were expected to pick up Thursday afternoon and again Friday.
“We’re trying to keep this fire as small as possible, especially because it’s right in the community,” he said. “We’ve had a loss of a lot of structures so our crews are right there on the fire-front, going as direct as possible.”
Six new large fires were reported Wednesday: three in Texas, two in Colorado and one in Oklahoma. In all, wildland firefighters and support personnel were trying to contain 11 large fires that have charred more than 103sq km (40sq miles) in five states.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Thursday that since the start of the year, 18,550 wildfires have burned about 3,237sq km (1,250sq miles). That’s well above the 10-year average of 12,290 wildfires and 2162.64sq km (835sq miles) burned.
Hotter and drier weather coupled with decades of fire suppression have contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists have said. The problem is exacerbated by a more than 20-year Western megadrought that studies have linked to human-caused climate change.
Elsewhere in New Mexico, wildfires were burning northwest of Ruidoso, along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque, in mountains northwest of the community of Las Vegas and in grasslands along the Pecos River near the town of Roswell.