Fires Force Evacuations in New Mexico

Wind-whipped grass fires pushed into residential areas Saturday, burning at least 32 homes and forcing residents to flee four subdivisions.

Three air tankers dropped retardant on the fires, but the winds were so intense that planes and helicopters were grounded in the evening, said Gwen Shaffer, Forest Service spokeswoman. Gusts up to 60 mph were reported.

Two fires consumed at least 3,400 acres, including 1,000 acres in the Kokopelli Fire, named after the subdivision where the homes burned, firefighters said. A blaze called the 5-2 Fire, which started on the Mescalero Apache reservation, burned about 2,400 acres, according to the state Public Safety Department.

No injuries have been reported, officials said.

Terri Wildermuth, spokeswoman for the state Forestry Division, said the Kokopelli fire was "human caused" but declined to elaborate. She said the cause of the other fire had not been determined.

Police Lt. Wolf Born said the 32 homes were burned north and northeast of Ruidoso, a heavily forested mountain resort in southern New Mexico known for skiing in the winter and horse racing in the summer.

Born estimated the number of people who fled was about 200. The village of Ruidoso was not evacuated.

It was the third straight year that fires have devastated the Ruidoso area.

"We've declared a state of emergency, and we're asking President Bush to declare Ruidoso a disaster area," said Ruidoso emergency manager Tomas Chavez.

A temporary shelter was set up at Ruidoso High School and at the Alto Lakes Country Club for those who had to leave their homes.

Fire season in New Mexico is about two to four weeks ahead of where it should be, and firefighting resources are being brought into the state earlier than normal, officials said.

Winter snowpack is sparse in New Mexico's high country. It's only 20 percent of normal in the Lincoln National Forest, which is near Ruidoso.

"Unless we really get dumped on in the next month — 3 feet after 3 feet after 3 feet of snow — our fire danger will be high," said Richard Woolley, fire meteorologist with the interagency Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque.

During 2000, 2,466 fires scorched 519,177 acres — including four mammoth fires highlighted by the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos that blackened 42,878 acres and burned more than 200 structures.

Last year, 1,649 fires burned 38,890 acres.

Between last Jan. 1 and March 20, 61 fires burned 2,279 acres.