New Mexico fire victims find homes gone

March 25, 2002 at 6:16 PM
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RUIDOSO, N.M., March 25 (UPI) -- Residents were allowed back into a burned-out mountain area of southern New Mexico Monday to see if their homes had survived a weekend wildfire that burned more than 800 acres and destroyed 28 homes.

About 300 residents evacuated Saturday when the wildfire broke out 10 miles northeast of Ruidoso, a popular resort town in Lincoln National Forest. Many of them didn't know what to expect when they were allowed to return Monday.

"It was emotional, especially for those who lost their homes," said James Mason, a spokesman for the Ruidoso Fire Department. "Of course, some of them were happy too to see that their homes were OK."

Many of the homes were expensive vacation retreats owned by out-of-state residents. The preliminary damage estimate was $5.2 million. Ruidoso is a popular destination for skiing in the winter and golf, fishing and horse racing in the warmer months.

The fire was 60 percent contained Monday with only small spot fires still burning, Mason said.

"It's kind of in a mop-up stage right now," he said.

On a tour of the area Sunday, Gov. Gary Johnson said the fire was started by a resident who dumped fireplace ashes in his backyard. He urged residents to be aware of fire safety because of a continuing drought in the state.

Jenell Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center at Boise, Idaho, said that conditions are ripe for wildfires right now in the Southwest.

"The fire danger is extreme and fire managers and land managers are all being very cautious," she said. "We are trying to get the word to people who visit public lands to be very careful this time of year in that area."

Extreme to moderate drought conditions are reported in the Southwest, which includes New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California.

New Mexico officials are trying to avoid a repeat of the record-breaking 2000 wildfire season in which the giant Cerro Grande fire burned through Los Alamos and destroyed more than 200 homes. More than 2,400 fires burned more than 500,000 acres.

South of Ruidoso, three wildfires were burning Monday on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. One of them had consumed more than 10,000 acres of grass, pinyon pine and juniper. About 100 people left Hondo as a precaution but there were no reported injuries in any of the fires.

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