By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and PAUL DAVENPORT Associated Press
Firefighters scouted the drought-stricken mountainsides around a New Mexico village on Wednesday as they looked for opportunities to slow a wind-driven wildfire that a day earlier had burned at least 150 homes and other structures while displacing thousands of residents and forcing the evacuation of two schools.
Homes were among the structures that burned Tuesday, but officials did not have a count of how many were destroyed in the blaze that torched at least 6.4 square miles (16.6 square kilometers) of forest, brush and grass on the east side of the community of Ruidoso, said Laura Rabon, spokesperson for the Lincoln National Forest.
No deaths or injuries were reported from the fire fanned by winds between 50 mph (80 kph) and 90 mph (155 kph), Rabon said.
While the cause of the blaze was under investigation, fire officials and forecasters warned Wednesday that persistent dry and windy conditions had prompted red flag warnings for a wide swath that included almost all of New Mexico, half of Texas and parts of Colorado and the Midwest.
Five new large fires were reported Tuesday, and nearly 1,600 wildland firefighters and support personnel were assigned to large fires in the southwestern, southern and Rocky Mountain areas, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
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 say. And the problem is exacerbated by a more than 20-year Western megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change. The fire season has become year-round given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rain coming later in the fall.
In Ruidoso, officials declared a state of emergency and said school classes were canceled Wednesday as the village — about 140 miles northeast of El Paso, Texas — coped with power outages due to down power lines.
The residences that burned were mostly a mix of trailers and single-family homes, and close to 4,000 people were displaced by evacuations. Village spokeswoman Kerry Gladden said authorities were out trying to survey as much damage as possible before Wednesday afternoon, when gusts were expected again, raising the fire threat.
“Right now, everybody is just rallying around those who had to be evacuated,” Gladden said. “We’re just trying to reach out to make sure everyone has places to stay. Plus in the middle of all this, our village is still without power. Everybody is just trying to get the resources here on the ground where they’re needed and get everyone fed.”
Ruidoso in 2012 was hit by one of the most destructive wildfires in New Mexico history, when a lightning-sparked blaze destroyed more than 240 homes and burned nearly 70 square miles (181 square kilometers).
Rabon said Wednesday that no precipitation was in the forecast and humidity levels remained in the single digits, which would make stopping the flames more difficult.
"Those extremely dry conditions are not in our favor,” she said.
Another wildfire in the Lincoln National Forest northwest of Ruidoso burned at least 400 acres (1.6 square kilometers) after it was sparked Tuesday by power lines downed by high winds. Crews confirmed Wednesday 10 structures were lost.
Elsewhere in New Mexico, wildfires were burning 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.
In Colorado, crews were battling wind-whipped grass fires that had destroyed two homes and forced temporary evacuations.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Davenport from Phoenix.
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