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RUIDOSO — Authorities found the remains of two people on Wednesday inside a home that burned down during the McBride Fire.
Officer Dusty Francisco, a State Police spokesman, said the agency learned an elderly couple had tried to evacuate the area Tuesday evening but were “unaccounted for” by relatives.
The discovery came as the McBride Fire burned thousands of acres in Ruidoso, prompting widespread evacuations and destroying more than a hundred structures, including homes.
Francisco said local firefighters responded around 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday to a house fire at 569 Gavilan Canyon Road. He said, later that evening, the Ruidoso Police Department learned an elderly couple had not been heard from since trying to escape the fast-spreading wildfire.
Francisco said on Wednesday State Police, Ruidoso police detectives and the Bonita Volunteer Fire Department found the remains inside the burned out home.
“State Police is currently working with the Office of Medical Investigator to positively identify the deceased victims and determine the cause and manner of death,” Francisco said. “NMSP will release the identity of the deceased when identification has been made by OMI, and (when) next-of-kin has been properly notified.”
The grim news capped an emotional day for many in this mountain community as thousands of residents were forced to flee the blaze while hoping that their houses would still be there when they returned. Others were dealing with the reality that their homes and most of their belongings were destroyed.
For Kenny and Michele Ryen it was supposed to be a quick trip to the store.
They left their home on Gavilan Canyon Road at about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday to pick up dish soap. They headed back about 30 minutes later, but a law enforcement officer wouldn’t let them drive down the road to their home of 18 years.
Back at their house, their son saw the flames approaching and scooped up the family dog, a 7-month-old Yorkiepoo named Stevie Nikki, and fled.
“He said it was about five minutes later and the house was on fire,” Kenny Ryen said Wednesday as he waited at an emergency shelter. “He grabbed (Stevie Nikki) and took off running down the road because he couldn’t find the keys to his car.”
Raging winds over 80 mph on Tuesday contributed to wildfires that spread rapidly in the Ruidoso area, leading to thousands of people receiving mandatory evacuation orders.
So far, the McBride Fire has destroyed about 150 structures, including residences like the Ryen’s home, according to fire officials. It wasn’t yet known how many people lost their homes.
“We had trees coming down in town, roofs blowing off houses, this is definitely a wind-fueled fire,” said Lincoln National Forest spokesperson Laura Rabon.
The Ruidoso fire is one of several burning across New Mexico this week, including a prescribed burn-turned-wildfire threatening the Las Vegas water supply and a Belen fire that has cut off public river access.
The McBride Fire started Tuesday near Hull Road and Warrior Drive in Ruidoso, authorities said.
The fire had burned about 5,300 acres as of Wednesday evening and was 0% contained.
The fire jumped a road Wednesday afternoon into a mostly residential area, prompting an emergency evacuation for thousands of Ruidoso residents.
Rabon said fire crews had been working to keep the fire at bay on Gavilan Canyon Road.
“The fire has jumped the road that it was being held on,” Rabon said shortly after 4:30 p.m. “If you are in the area, please leave immediately. Get in your cars and go.”
Rabon’s announcement came during a media briefing, where Ruidoso officials were reporting that fire crews had made progress on the blaze throughout the day, and that an influx of firefighters were going to assume command of the fire fight early Thursday morning.
But Rabon interrupted that briefing to call for an emergency evacuation. She said a significant percentage of Ruidoso residents are now being told to leave their homes.
The new evacuation order is for the area of Gavilan Canyon Road between Meander Drive and Highway 70, behind the McDonalds and the Walgreens, said Ruidoso spokesperson Kerry Gladden.
Authorities used “reverse 911” to alert residents.
A Ruidoso police officer said the fire jumped from the west side of Gavilan Canyon Road to the east on Wednesday evening, which prompted the second wave of evacuations.
The evening announcement led to a flurry of activity along Gavilan Canyon Road as families rushed to fill their cars and get to safety.
A man and woman walked outside with clothes still on hangers and flung them into the back of an SUV. Another man rambled down the road, his pickup filled with furniture.
Charlotte Williams, who bought a home on Gavilan Canyon Road in 1972, waited as her family filled three cars with heirlooms and photographs as the sun was beginning to set.
She drove up from Las Cruces to help her son, who now owns the property, clear out personal items.
“Everyone feared this would happen one day in Ruidoso,” she said.
While there have been other fires in the area, Williams can’t remember a fire that threatened so many homes.
She said it appeared the fire started near the “McBride residence,” which she described as a massive, elegant estate.
“Oh, my gosh, there’s a lot of homes up there,” Williams said as she nodded further north up the canyon, where smoke clung above the pines in the hazy sky of the waning light.
Parts of Ruidoso remain without electricity and gas. A PNM spokesperson said 18,000 customers lost power, but by Wednesday afternoon about half had been restored.
Throughout the day on Wednesday, smoke billowed behind the canyon ridges on the north side of town. At some points large flames reached up above the trees. In town, many businesses were closed. Some had handwritten signs saying “closed for fire” taped to the door.
Flames could at times be seen above Gavilan Ridge, which is to the northwest of the Ruidoso Community Center.
Rabon said high winds — 70 mph sustained winds and 90 mph gusts — prevented aircraft from contributing to firefighting efforts on Tuesday. A helicopter and seven air tankers were assisting on Wednesday morning, until high winds grounded those efforts.
There were about 250 local, state and federal personnel fighting the fire on Wednesday, Rabon said.
A Type 1 Southwest Incident Management Team is expected to take command of the fire Thursday morning, she said. Between 700 and 1,000 people will likely be working to stop the fire when that team takes over, fire officials said.
The Ruidoso Convention Center is serving as an emergency shelter.
Red Cross workers were handing out supplies to people who had been evacuated, and cots were set up in a room where several people were resting Wednesday.
Margie Vaughan, who lives with her husband on Rim Road in Ruidoso, was at the convention center looking for information. Their home had no electricity or wifi, but was still standing on Wednesday.
“I just have a lot of sorrow for the people who lost their homes,” she said.
The Ryens suspected many of their neighbors suffered a fate similar to theirs.
“Everybody’s still alive. It’s all material stuff that can be replaced,” Kenny Ryen said. “… But there’s a bunch of people without a home.”
The couple looked shocked, sad and worn down as they waited at the shelter.
“Pray for Ruidoso,” Michele Ryen added.
The cause of the McBride Fire is under investigation.
A separate Nogal Canyon Fire burning northwest of Ruidoso has also led to evacuations.
That fire, which was caused by a downed power line, has burned 400 acres and destroyed 10 structures.
Hermits Peak Fire
Santa Fe National Forest officials apologized this week for the Hermits Peak Fire.
The blaze began as a prescribed burn last week, but has now scorched more than 6,000 acres northwest of Las Vegas and was 10% contained as of Wednesday evening.
Steve Romero, the Pecos/Las Vegas District Ranger, said earlier this week that unexpected weather conditions had caused the fire to spread outside the project boundary.
“We take full responsibility, and with a heavy heart,” Romero said. “We are really sorry for what happened.”
Half of the wildfire is burning in the Gallinas watershed — the main water supply source for the city of Las Vegas.
The New Mexico Environment and Health departments have issued a smoke advisory for San Miguel, Mora and Colfax counties through Thursday evening.
Big Hole Fire
All river access points and ditch bank access roads from Los Lunas to Belen are now closed to the public so that fire crews can continue fighting the Big Hole Fire.
The bosque fire had burned about 900 acres as of Wednesday evening and was 40% contained.
River closures are in effect from the Los Lunas river bridge south to the Belen bridge.