Flash flooding threatens New Mexico region devastated by deadly wildfires

Severe weather added new challenges to firefighters battling deadly wildfires in south-central New Mexico on Wednesday night, as multiple inches of rain created flash flooding along the burn scars that mark where over a thousand homes and structures have been destroyed and at least two people have died.

RUIDOSO, N.M. – Firefighters continued to battle both deadly wildfires and bouts of severe weather and flash flooding in south-central New Mexico on Friday as an entire town of nearly 8,000 people remains evacuated and 1,400 homes and structures sit destroyed by flames.

But the scattered rain has had the beneficial effect of keeping the fire from spreading much farther.

The South Fork and nearby Salt wildfires have scorched more than a combined 24,000 acres of tribal and government lands surrounding the village of Ruidoso and the Mescalero Apache Reserve, and both remain at 0% containment. Several other homes and structures remain threatened by flames.

"We have two devastating, enormous fires," New Mexico Gov. Michelle Luan Grisham said during a news conference Tuesday, just hours after she declared a state of emergency

Friday's acreage burned report was only slightly higher than Thursday's reported numbers.

"The South Fork and Salt fires experienced minimal fire behavior on Thursday due to the variable precipitation on Wednesday and persistent high humidity into Thursday," New Mexico fire officials wrote in their Friday morning update. "The cooler weather and moderate fire conditions observed on Thursday are expected to continue into Friday."

Flash Flood Emergency issued as multiple inches of rain fall in just minutes on Wednesday

The rain was too much in many areas on Wednesday as a severe thunderstorm dumped heavy rain and baseball-sized hail over the burn scar Wednesday. The National Weather Service office in Albuquerque issued a Flash Flood Emergency for Ruidoso and Alto, where radar estimated that 2.5 inches of rain fell in 30 minutes. A rain gauge inside the northern areas of the South Fork Fire recorded 1.62 inches of rain on Wednesday.

Video from the scene showed raging impromptu muddy rivers coursing through burn scar areas, with an RV park flooded under at least a foot of water. 

And thunderstorms erupted again over the area on Thursday.

While the rain has been good for tamping down the flames, the heavy nature of the storms are still presenting flooding threats, especially over the burn scars. 

Abundant tropical moisture pushing into the region from the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto is combining with an upper-level trough on the West Coast to provide ample fuel for heavy rain inside passing thunderstorms.

And scattered thunderstorms are again in the forecast for Friday across south-central New Mexico, keeping the threat going for additional flooding. Flash Flood Watches remain in effect for Ruidoso and the South Fork and Salt wildfire burn scar areas through Friday night.

Additional thunderstorms are possible Friday before a return to hotter, drier conditions over the weekend. 

Fire rapidly spread Monday, prompting thousands to flee

The larger South Fork fire was discovered about 9 a.m. Monday and quickly grew during the afternoon with what New Mexico Forestry officials described as "extreme fire behavior" as gusty winds reaching 20-30 mph and low humidity fueled the flames. The fire began encroaching on Ruidoso late Monday evening, prompting officials to urge immediate evacuation of the entire village and surrounding area.

"Please do not try to gather belongings or protect your home," village officials urged on social media. "GO NOW."


Emergency officials set up shelters in nearby Roswell and offered state fairgrounds space to house evacuated livestock. 

Firefighters reported treating two people for non-life-threatening injuries during the evacuations, Grisham said during the conference.

Seven patients were evacuated from the town hospital, and 17 more residents were brought to safety from an assisted living facility, Grisham said. 

As of Thursday, the wildfire had blackened 16,335 acres, according to city officials. More than 800 firefighters and first responders are now on the scene. 

The New Mexico National Guard sent more than 40 Army and Air National Guardsmen to assist state police with traffic checkpoints.  

"Traveling in and around that eastern and southern part of the state is not only not allowable with road closures, but it’s discouraged even when roads are open," Grisham said. 


The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Nearby Salt Fire prompts its own evacuation

Firefighters have their hands full not only with the South Fork fire but also with the Salt Fire burning nearby on the Mescalero Reservation. 

That fire reached over 7,000 acres on Thursday and forced evacuations of residents in the area. 

"The fire is now making a significant run towards Ruidoso Downs, posing an imminent threat to the area," fire officials said.