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Wildfire damages structures in New Mexican village after residents flee

Residents of the mountain village of about 7,000 residents fled their homes under evacuation orders with little time to rescue belongings (Jacquie Escajeda/AP)
Residents of the mountain village of about 7,000 residents fled their homes under evacuation orders with little time to rescue belongings (Jacquie Escajeda/AP)

A wildfire swept into the mountain village of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico on Tuesday, destroying or damaging hundreds of structures after residents fled under evacuation orders with little time to rescue belongings.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency in southern New Mexico on Tuesday and deployed additional National Guard troops to the area.

The magnitude of the fires is beyond local control and requires immediate state intervention to protect public health, safety and welfare, the governor said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.

She said more than 500 structures had been damaged and the entire village of Ruidoso, population 7,000, had been evacuated.

“The horrific South Fork Fire and Salt Fire have ravaged our lands and property, and forced thousands to flee their homes,” she said. “We are deploying every available resource to control these fires.”

Ruidoso City councillor Greg Cory said: “The fire is out of control, but I’ve heard of no injuries or fatalities.”

Mr Cory spoke from Clovis, New Mexico, where he and his wife and grandson arrived after driving about three hours on Monday evening from Ruidoso.

They were among hundreds of Ruidoso residents who fled for their lives through traffic-clogged downtown streets in the normally pastoral vacation destination, as smoke darkened the evening sky and 30m-high flames climbed a ridgeline.

By Tuesday morning, city webcams showed a deserted main street with smoke still wafting in the sky.

“GO NOW: Do not attempt to gather belongings or protect your home. Evacuate immediately,” officials with Ruidoso, a village home to 7,000 people, said on its website and in social media posts at about 7pm on Monday.

Accountant Steve Jones said he and his wife evacuated overnight as emergency crews arrived at their doorstep and dense smoke filled the Ruidoso valley, making it difficult to breathe.

“We had a 40mph wind that was taking this fire all along the ridge, we could literally see 100ft flames,” said Mr Jones, who relocated in a camper. “That’s why it consumed so much acreage.”

He said mobile and internet service failed with the evacuation underway, while villagers tuned into AM radio for updates, packed up belongings and drove from Ruidoso, which is about 130 miles south east of Albuquerque.

“The traffic became bumper-to-bumper, slow-moving, and people’s nerves became a little jangled,” he said.

Public Service Company of New Mexico shut off power to part of the village due to the fire, which was estimated to be about 22 square miles (56 square kilometres) with 0% containment, forestry and village officials said on Tuesday morning.

New-Mexico-Wildfires
Smoke filled the sky from the wildfires in Ruidoso, New Mexico (Brian Chavira/AP)

The state forestry division said multiple structures were threatened and a number have been lost. A portion of US Highway 70 was closed south of the village.

“We were getting ready to sit down to a meal and the alert came on: Evacuate now, don’t take anything or plan to pack anything, just evacuate,” Mary Lou Minic told KOB-TV. “And within three to five minutes, we were in the car, leaving.”

The South Fork Fire started on Monday on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, where the tribal president issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency. It was burning on tribal and US Forest Service land within areas surrounding Ruidoso.

A second fire, called the Salt Fire, also was burning on the Mescalero reservation and southwest of Ruidoso. It was more than 7.6 square miles (19.6 square kilometres) as of Tuesday morning with no containment, the forestry division said.

California Wildfires
Firefighters increased their containment of a large wildfire in California (Noah Berger/AP)

The Village of Ruidoso is about 75 miles (121 kilometres) west of Roswell, where several evacuation centres were set up.

An air quality alert was issued for very unhealthy air in Ruidoso and surrounding areas due to smoke.

In California, firefighters have increased their containment of a large wildfire that is burning in steep, hard-to-reach areas in the mountains north of Los Angeles, officials said. But hot, dry, windy weather could challenge their efforts Tuesday.