A burned SUV at a home located on Wolf Springs Loop near Ruidoso, N.M., shows the devastation caused by a wildfire, Monday June 11, 2012. Massive wildfires in drought-parched Colorado and New Mexico tested the resources of state and federal crews Monday and underscored the need to replenish an aging U.S. aerial firefighting fleet needed to combat a year-round fire season. (AP Photo/Albuquerque Journal, Adolphe Pierre-Louis)
RUIDOSO, N.M. (AP) — Air and ground crews used a break in the hot and windy weather Monday to fight a fast-moving wildfire that charred tens of thousands of acres in just three days and forced hundreds of residents to leave their homes in southern New Mexico.
Although the lightning-sparked fire in the Sierra Blanca mountain range grew by another 1,500 acres, fire officials declared it 30 percent contained by Monday night after the almost 950 firefighters were able to build fire lines on the east side of the blaze.
Similar weather was forecast for Tuesday, and fire officials said ground crews would concentrate on constructing additional lines on the south side to keep flames from moving closer to the mountain community Ruidoso and the Ski Apache resort.
An estimated 35 structures have been damaged or destroyed by the blaze, and fire managers expect that number to grow once damage assessments are done.
Despite the higher humidity and calmer winds, authorities put Ruidoso residents on notice to be ready to evacuate. At least 2,000 people were told to leave homes scattered in the mountains between Ruidoso and the neighboring community of Capitan, said village spokeswoman Kerry Gladden.
Gov. Susana Martinez met with firefighters to get a progress report late Monday afternoon and said she would soon be signing an executive order to release emergency funds.
The blaze exploded over the weekend and increased tenfold in a day as it was fanned by fierce winds, then doubled in size to more than 54 square miles by Monday.
Strong winds Sunday grounded helicopters, but the break in the weather is “an incredible window of opportunity. … The timing is just perfect,” said fire information officer Karen Takai.
Belen Mosley was among the first residents in the outlying subdivisions to flee. The 70-year-old woman said she stayed up all night watching the glow of the fire and waiting for the flames to creep over the top of the mountainside that faces her home. She wasted no time getting out once she saw the flames.
“It’s horrible not knowing if your house is still there,” she said as she waited in an evacuation shelter in Ruidoso. Mosley said her only consolation was her answering machine: She called her home regularly to make sure it was still picking up.
Before dawn Saturday, Daniel Rivas heard a knock on his door: “Get out now and don’t fool around,” said the Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy on the other side.
Rivas, 81, said he wants to go back to ensure that his home is protected from embers left by the blaze, but authorities said it could be the weekend before anyone is allowed into the area.
Fire managers said crews were working to protect homes in the area, which has had its share of fires over the years. The region is surrounded by the Lincoln National Forest. Just last year, one blaze burned more than 10,000 acres, destroyed five homes and forced evacuations. Another ended up being one of New Mexico’s record fires last summer.
In April, officials gathered in Ruidoso for a summit on fires in communities that border forests, grasslands and hill country. Gladden said residents are aware of the danger.
“It’s like when you live in an area where you have hurricanes or tornadoes. It’s kind of part of the life you live,” she said. “It is nerve-racking, but when it happens, you know what to do — just take all the steps you can to keep your family and property safe, but you also know when to get out.”
Elsewhere in New Mexico, firefighters made slow progress against the largest wildfire in state history. The blaze has charred 435 square miles of forest since it was sparked by lightning in mid-May, and was 37 percent contained Monday.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.