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    New Mexico fires that evacuated 8,000 curbed by rain, but residents face flash floods

    By Cybele Mayes-Osterman, USA TODAY,

    26 days ago

    Two fires in New Mexico that consumed more than 23,000 acres and forced thousands to evacuate were slowed down by rainy weather, local officials say, as the area faces surging flood waters and water rescues are ongoing.

    After a four-day battle with the South Fork Fire and the Salt Fire, authorities said a bout of rain sapped some of the fires' momentum.

    "There's still fire out there. There's still smoke. It's going to move, but over the next two to three days, we expect very little lateral movement, very little spread," Arthur Gonzales, a fire behavior analyst for Southwest Area Incident Management Team #5, said at a community meeting posted to Facebook on Thursday. Still, the two fires were 0% contained, according to an update posted that evening.

    Paul Meznarich, public information officer for the team, told USA TODAY on Friday morning the acreage for the South Fork Fire only increased by 14 acres from the day before. "The weather's been really cooperative in kind of tamping down the fire activity," he said.

    But more heavy rain is expected to drench the area Friday, extending the risk of flash flooding. As of late Friday, no serious flooding was reported but weather officials warned of the risk into early morning hours Saturday.

    The National Weather Service forecasted heavy showers and thunderstorms throughout the state on Friday afternoon. Burned areas could be "particularly susceptible to debris flow and flash flooding concerns," it said.

    More: Wildfires force New Mexico village of Ruidoso to evacuate homes: See map

    Thousands evacuated, two dead in two fires

    Almost 1,000 personnel have been called in since the fires ignited on Monday near the Village of Ruidoso and Ruidoso Downs, around 230 miles southeast of Albuquerque. As the fires consumed dry grass, pine, juniper, and conifer, around 8,000 people were forced to evacuate. Around 1,400 structures have been destroyed, officials said.

    Two were killed in the blaze – Patrick Pearson, a 60-year-old father and country musician who was found by the side of the road near a local motel, and an unidentified person found in a burned vehicle.

    Pearson, who played the bass and sang at a local bar several times a week, likely passed away on Monday after the fire left the motel in ashes, the Ruidoso News, part of the USA TODAY Network , reported. His daughter told the News his ride out of town was denied entry after highways were shut down, and Pearson was killed as he attempted to leave on foot, using his walker.

    New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the fires were "among the most devastating fires in New Mexico's history" at a news conference on Wednesday. Grisham declared a state of emergency in Lincoln County and the Mescalero Apache Reservation and deployed National Guard troops to the area, according to a press release . She also authorized the release of more than $5 million in emergency funds.

    On Thursday, President Biden also approved a disaster declaration and authorized federal funding towards the recovery. The funds will make affected residents of the county and reservation eligible to apply for housing assistance, home repairs, loans to cover property loss, and other programs.

    Authorities were optimistic that the rainfall on Wednesday – up to 1.62 inches – coupled with cooler temperatures in the 60s and 70s and cloudy humidity would curb the fire. Fire officials had made progress on both fires, said Brandon Glenn, the team's operations section chief.

    Fire officials are working with local law enforcement to secure the area and make sure power is restored so residents can return to their homes, Dave Gesser, the team's incident commander, said during the community meeting. "We're trying to get folks back in as soon as we can, but we have to make sure the fire area is secure in those areas," he said.

    Tom Bird, an incident meteorologist with the National Weather Service who was also at the meeting, said a couple "exceptionally hot, exceptionally dry and very windy days" late last week created the conditions for the fires to spark. "It was the worst that we've seen over the last month," he said.

    The area had already endured months of drought, and this time of year is the peak of fire season, Bird said. "We went in under what we've considered fairly typical fire weather conditions," he added.

    Since the start of the fires, help has been on the way for the community.

    The U.S. Border Patrol deployed agents from their El Paso and Alamogordo stations to assist with fire response, Anthony Good, chief of the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, posted to X.

    The Red Cross opened 15 shelters across Roswell, Capitan, Alamogordo, Mescalero, and Carrizozo to those displaced by the fires.

    After the Village put out a call for donations, drop off locations were "overwhelmed" with the amount of items, and encouraged people to consider a monetary donation instead, the Village posted to Facebook .

    More: Tropical Storm Alberto dissipates after killing 4 in Mexico; coastal flooding possible in Texas

    Ruidoso faces flash flood risk after rainfall

    The rainfall exposed Ruidoso residents to other hazards.

    The National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency for Ruidoso and Ruidoso Downs through Wednesday evening as flood waters from the rainfall poured down slopes charred by the fire. Water rescues were "ongoing," as residents were urged to seek higher ground and avoid low-lying areas, the Service posted on X .

    Authorities said the fires had cleared vegetation that would normally impede flooding and mud slides.

    Still, Meznarich said the flooding had not impacted fire fighting operations. Although officials are still concerned about the heavy rainfall, it had helped responders "get a little bit closer to the fire to more directly engage with it," he said.

    Contributing: Adrian Hedden, Ruidoso News; Aaron A. Bedoya, El Paso Times

    Cybele Mayes-Osterman is a breaking news reporter for USA Today. Reach her on email at cmayesosterman@usatoday.com. Follow her on X @CybeleMO.

    This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Mexico fires that evacuated 8,000 curbed by rain, but residents face flash floods

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