The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE — Residents were returning home Monday after officials lifted evacuation orders forced by a wind-driven wildfire that burned five houses, drove people from a racetrack casino, and knocked out power in part of a southern New Mexico resort area.
Barriers into neighborhoods in the Ruidoso Downs area were lifted at 3 p.m., fire information officer Jennifer Myslivy said.
Officials confirmed five houses and seven outbuildings were destroyed, and two homes and two outbuildings were damaged, she said. Numerous vehicles also were destroyed or damaged.
The fire broke out Sunday in steep, rugged Gavilan Canyon, and has burned 6,000 acres, or more than 9 square miles. It was 20 percent contained Monday afternoon, Myslivy said.
State Forestry Division spokesman Dan Ware said the fire was still very active.
Part of the battle took to the air Monday as helicopters dropped large buckets of water and airplanes dropped fire-retardant slurry to help secure fire lines, Myslivy said.
Cooler temperatures and lighter winds also were helping crews on the ground. Winds Sunday were estimated at 50 to 60 mph.
“This was definitely a wind-driven fire,” Myslivy said. “Just looking at the fire perimeter, it’s just one straight line.”
Leslie Smith evacuated with her husband, Mike, from their weekend cabin Sunday. She said the area had been on alert for a long time, and it wasn’t a matter of if, but when, a fire would break out.
The couple could see a big plume of smoke from the deck of their cabin. But they didn’t leave immediately because evacuations at that point were voluntary, Leslie Smith said Monday from her home in Roswell.
“Then the sheriff came and said, ’You’re being evacuated,’” she said.
As they drove out, they could see the fire. “There were flames everyplace, and for a long distance,” Leslie Smith said.
The wind-driven fire tripled in size overnight into Monday morning, burning grass, brush and pinon and juniper trees on private, state and federal land about 200 miles south of Albuquerque.
Ware said he did not know the locations of the burned homes, but barns that burned were east of Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino. The track is home to the All-American Futurity, one of the richest quarter horse races. Last year’s winner earned $1 million.
Race season hasn’t started, but 125 to 150 customers and staff evacuated from the casino Sunday, Ruidoso Downs security official Charlie Falke said.
“We didn’t see any flames. We just saw smoke,” said Falke, who said neither the track nor the casino was damaged.
The fire also burned 17 electric poles belonging to Otero County Electric Cooperative and damaged a feeder line, knocking out power to about 1,000 area homes and businesses, said Clint Gardner, a member services manager for the company. Power was being restored Monday afternoon.
In the central part of the state, firefighters made progress on another wind-driven wildfire that prompted the evacuation of 50 people from the New Mexico Boys Ranch for underprivileged children, fire information officer Vicky Fox said. The ranch remained evacuated Monday.
The 2,000-acre fire was listed as 25 percent contained Monday morning, she said.
The fire lines held in the area more than 60 miles south of Albuquerque despite fierce winds overnight, Fox said.
No structures have burned, she said.
A third fire that blackened about 2,000 acres in the Uvas Valley along N.M. 26 was nearing containment, Ware said.